Background context: Despite the many published randomized clinical trials (RCTs), a substantial number of reviews and several national clinical guidelines, much controversy still remains regarding the evidence for or against efficacy of spinal manipulation for low back pain and neck pain.
Purpose: To reassess the efficacy of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) and mobilization (MOB) for the management of low back pain (LBP) and neck pain (NP), with special attention to applying more stringent criteria for study admissibility into evidence and for isolating the effect of SMT and/or MOB.
Study design: RCTs including 10 or more subjects per group receiving SMT or MOB and using patient-oriented primary outcome measures (eg, patient-rated pain, disability, global improvement and recovery time).
Methods: Articles in English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch reporting on randomized trials were identified by a comprehensive search of computerized and bibliographic literature databases up to the end of 2002. Two reviewers independently abstracted data and assessed study quality according to eight explicit criteria. A best evidence synthesis incorporating explicit, detailed information about outcome measures and interventions was used to evaluate treatment efficacy. The strength of evidence was assessed by a classification system that incorporated study validity and statistical significance of study results. Sixty-nine RCTs met the study selection criteria and were reviewed and assigned validity scores varying from 6 to 81 on a scale of 0 to 100. Forty-three RCTs met the admissibility criteria for evidence.
Results: Acute LBP: There is moderate evidence that SMT provides more short-term pain relief than MOB and detuned diathermy, and limited evidence of faster recovery than a commonly used physical therapy treatment strategy. Chronic LBP: There is moderate evidence that SMT has an effect similar to an efficacious prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, SMT/MOB is effective in the short term when compared with placebo and general practitioner care, and in the long term compared to physical therapy. There is limited to moderate evidence that SMT is better than physical therapy and home back exercise in both the short and long term. There is limited evidence that SMT is superior to sham SMT in the short term and superior to chemonucleolysis for disc herniation in the short term. However, there is also limited evidence that MOB is inferior to back exercise after disc herniation surgery. Mix of acute and chronic LBP: SMT/MOB provides either similar or better pain outcomes in the short and long term when compared with placebo and with other treatments, such as McKenzie therapy, medical care, management by physical therapists, soft tissue treatment and back school. Acute NP: There are few studies, and the evidence is currently inconclusive. Chronic NP: There is moderate evidence that SMT/MOB is superior to general practitioner management for short-term pain reduction but that SMT offers at most similar pain relief to high-technology rehabilitative exercise in the short and long term. Mix of acute and chronic NP: The overall evidence is not clear. There is moderate evidence that MOB is superior to physical therapy and family physician care, and similar to SMT in both the short and long term. There is limited evidence that SMT, in both the short and long term, is inferior to physical therapy.
Conclusions: Our data synthesis suggests that recommendations can be made with some confidence regarding the use of SMT and/or MOB as a viable option for the treatment of both low back pain and NP. There have been few high-quality trials distinguishing between acute and chronic patients, and most are limited to shorter-term follow-up. Future trials should examine well-defined subgroups of patients, further address the value of SMT and MOB for acute patients, establish optimal number of treatment visits and consider the cost-effectiveness of care.