Low-back pain is a common and disabling disorder, representing a great burden both to the individual and society. It often results in reduced quality of life, time lost from work, and substantial medical expense. Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is widely practised by a variety of healthcare professionals worldwide and is a common choice for the treatment of low-back pain. The effectiveness of this form of therapy for the management of acute low-back pain is, however, not without dispute.
For this review, acute low-back pain was defined as pain lasting less than six weeks. Only cases of low-back pain not caused by a known underlying condition, for example, infection, tumour, or fracture, were included. Also included were patients whose pain was predominantly in the lower back but may also have radiated (spread) into the buttocks and legs.
SMT is known as a 'hands-on' treatment directed towards the spine, which includes both manipulation and mobilization. The therapist applies manual mobilization by passively moving the spinal joints within the patient’s range of motion using slow, passive movements, beginning with a small range and gradually increasing to a larger range of motion. Manipulation is a passive technique whereby the therapist applies a specifically directed manual impulse, or thrust, to a joint at or near the end of the passive (or physiological) range of motion. This is often accompanied by an audible ‘crack’.
In this review, a total of 20 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (representing 2674 participants) assessing the effects of SMT in patients with acute low-back pain were identified. Treatment was delivered by a variety of practitioners, including chiropractors, manual therapists, and osteopaths. Approximately one-third of the trials were considered to be of high methodological quality, meaning these studies provided a high level of confidence in the outcome of SMT.
Overall, we found generally low to very low quality evidence suggesting that SMT is no more effective in the treatment of patients with acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham (or fake) SMT, or when added to another treatment such as standard medical care. SMT also appears to be no more effective than other recommended therapies. SMT appears to be safe when compared to other treatment options but other considerations include costs of care.
SMT is no more effective in participants with acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT, or when added to another intervention. SMT also appears to be no better than other recommended therapies. Our evaluation is limited by the small number of studies per comparison, outcome, and time interval. Therefore, future research is likely to have an important impact on these estimates. The decision to refer patients for SMT should be based upon costs, preferences of the patients and providers, and relative safety of SMT compared to other treatment options. Future RCTs should examine specific subgroups and include an economic evaluation.
Many therapies exist for the treatment of low-back pain including spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), which is a worldwide, extensively practised intervention. This report is an update of the earlier Cochrane review, first published in January 2004 with the last search for studies up to January 2000.
To examine the effects of SMT for acute low-back pain, which is defined as pain of less than six weeks duration.
A comprehensive search was conducted on 31 March 2011 in the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PEDro, and the Index to Chiropractic Literature. Other search strategies were employed for completeness. No limitations were placed on language or publication status.
Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) which examined the effectiveness of spinal manipulation or mobilization in adults with acute low-back pain were included. In addition, studies were included if the pain was predominantly in the lower back but the study allowed mixed populations, including participants with radiation of pain into the buttocks and legs. Studies which exclusively evaluated sciatica were excluded. No other restrictions were placed on the setting nor the type of pain. The primary outcomes were back pain, back-pain specific functional status, and perceived recovery. Secondary outcomes were return-to-work and quality of life. SMT was defined as any hands-on therapy directed towards the spine, which includes both manipulation and mobilization, and includes studies from chiropractors, manual therapists, and osteopaths.
Two review authors independently conducted the study selection and risk of bias (RoB) assessment. Data extraction was checked by the second review author. The effects were examined in the following comparisons: SMT versus 1) inert interventions, 2) sham SMT, 3) other interventions, and 4) SMT as an additional therapy. In addition, we examined the effects of different SMT techniques compared to one another. GRADE was used to assess the quality of the evidence. Authors were contacted, where possible, for missing or unclear data. Outcomes were evaluated at the following time intervals: short-term (one week and one month), intermediate (three to six months), and long-term (12 months or longer). Clinical relevance was defined as: 1) small, mean difference (MD) < 10% of the scale or standardized mean difference (SMD) < 0.4; 2) medium, MD = 10% to 20% of the scale or SMD = 0.41 to 0.7; and 3) large, MD > 20% of the scale or SMD > 0.7.
We identified 20 RCTs (total number of participants = 2674), 12 (60%) of which were not included in the previous review. Sample sizes ranged from 36 to 323 (median (IQR) = 108 (61 to 189)). In total, six trials (30% of all included studies) had a low RoB. At most, three RCTs could be identified per comparison, outcome, and time interval; therefore, the amount of data should not be considered robust. In general, for the primary outcomes, there is low to very low quality evidence suggesting no difference in effect for SMT when compared to inert interventions, sham SMT, or when added to another intervention. There was varying quality of evidence (from very low to moderate) suggesting no difference in effect for SMT when compared with other interventions, with the exception of low quality evidence from one trial demonstrating a significant and moderately clinically relevant short-term effect of SMT on pain relief when compared to inert interventions, as well as low quality evidence demonstrating a significant short-term and moderately clinically relevant effect of SMT on functional status when added to another intervention. In general, side-lying and supine thrust SMT techniques demonstrate a short-term significant difference when compared to non-thrust SMT techniques for the outcomes of pain, functional status, and recovery.