Background: Low-back pain is a costly illness for which spinal manipulative therapy is commonly recommended. Previous systematic reviews and practice guidelines have reached discordant results on the effectiveness of this therapy for low-back pain.
Objectives: To resolve the discrepancies related to the use of spinal manipulative therapy and to update previous estimates of effectiveness, by comparing spinal manipulative therapy with other therapies and then incorporating data from recent high-quality randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) into the analysis.
Search strategy: The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL were electronically searched from their respective beginning to January 2000, using the Back Group search strategy; references from previous systematic reviews were also screened.
Selection criteria: Randomized, controlled trials (RCT) that evaluated spinal manipulative therapy for patients with low-back pain, with at least one day of follow-up, and at least one clinically-relevant outcome measure.
Data collection and analysis: Two authors, who served as the reviewers for all stages of the meta-analysis, independently extracted data from unmasked articles. Comparison treatments were classified into the following seven categories: sham, conventional general practitioner care, analgesics, physical therapy, exercises, back school, or a collection of therapies judged to be ineffective or even harmful (traction, corset, bed rest, home care, topical gel, no treatment, diathermy, and minimal massage).
Main results: Thirty-nine RCTs were identified. Meta-regression models were developed for acute or chronic pain and short-term and long-term pain and function. For patients with acute low-back pain, spinal manipulative therapy was superior only to sham therapy (10-mm difference [95% CI, 2 to 17 mm] on a 100-mm visual analogue scale) or therapies judged to be ineffective or even harmful. Spinal manipulative therapy had no statistically or clinically significant advantage over general practitioner care, analgesics, physical therapy, exercises, or back school. Results for patients with chronic low-back pain were similar. Radiation of pain, study quality, profession of manipulator, and use of manipulation alone or in combination with other therapies did not affect these results.
Reviewer's conclusions: There is no evidence that spinal manipulative therapy is superior to other standard treatments for patients with acute or chronic low-back pain.