Study design: A systematic review of randomized and quasi-randomized controlled trials.
Objectives: To determine the efficacy of prolotherapy injections in adults with chronic low back pain.
Summary of background data: Prolotherapy is an injection-based treatment for chronic low back pain. Proponents of prolotherapy suggest that some back pain stems from weakened or damaged ligaments. Repeatedly injecting them with irritant solutions is thought to strengthen the ligaments and reduce pain and disability. Prolotherapy protocols usually include co-interventions to enhance the effectiveness of the injections.
Methods: The authors searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and Science Citation Index up to January 2004, and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register 2004, issue 1, and consulted content experts. Both randomized and quasi-randomized controlled trials comparing prolotherapy injections to control injections, either alone or in combination with other treatments, were included. Studies had to include measures of pain and disability before and after the intervention. Two reviewers independently selected the trials and assessed them for methodologic quality. Treatment and control group protocols varied from study to study, making meta-analysis impossible.
Results: Four studies, all of high quality and with a total of 344 participants, were included. All trials measured pain and disability levels at 6 months, three measured the proportion of participants reporting a greater than 50% reduction in pain or disability scores from baseline to 6 months. Two studies showed significant differences between the treatment and control groups for those reporting more than 50% reduction in pain or disability. Their results could not be pooled. In one, co-interventions confounded interpretation of results; in the other, there was no significant difference in mean pain and disability scores between the groups. In the third study, there was little or no difference between groups in the number of individuals who reported more than 50% improvement in pain and disability. The fourth study reporting only mean pain and disability scores showed no differences between groups.
Conclusions: There is conflicting evidence regarding the efficacy of prolotherapy injections in reducing pain and disability in patients with chronic low back pain. Conclusions are confounded by clinical heterogeneity among studies and by the presence of co-interventions. There was no evidence that prolotherapy injections alone were more effective than control injections alone. However, in the presence of co-interventions, prolotherapy injections were more effective than control injections, more so when both injections and co-interventions were controlled concurrently.