Thoracic spine thrust manipulation versus cervical spine thrust manipulation in patients with acute neck pain: a randomized clinical trial

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Apr;41(4):208-20. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2011.3640. Epub 2011 Feb 18.


Study design: Randomized clinical trial.

Objective: To determine if patients who met the clinical prediction rule (CPR) criteria for the success of thoracic spine thrust joint manipulation (TJM) for the treatment of neck pain would have a different outcome if they were treated with a cervical spine TJM.

Background: A CPR had been proposed to identify patients with neck pain who would likely respond favorably to thoracic spine TJM. Research on validation of that CPR had not been completed when this trial was initiated. In our clinical experience, though many patients with neck pain responded favorably to thoracic spine TJM, they often reported that their symptomatic cervical spine area had not been adequately addressed.

Methods: Twenty-four consecutive patients, who presented to physical therapy with a primary complaint of neck pain and met 4 out of 6 of the CPR criteria for thoracic TJM, were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 treatment groups. The thoracic group received thoracic TJM and a cervical range-of-motion (ROM) exercise for the first 2 sessions, followed by a standardized exercise program for an additional 3 sessions. The cervical group received cervical TJM and the same cervical ROM exercise for the first 2 sessions, and the same exercise program given to the thoracic group for the next 3 sessions. Outcome measures collected at 1 week, 4 weeks, and 6 months from start of treatment included the Neck Disability Index, numeric pain rating scale, and Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire.

Results: Patients who received cervical TJM demonstrated greater improvements in Neck Disability Index (P ≤.001) and numeric pain rating scale (P ≤.003) scores at all follow-up times. There was also a statistically significant improvement in the Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire physical activity subscale score at all follow-up times for the cervical group (P ≤.004). The number needed to treat to avoid an unsuccessful overall outcome was 1.8 at 1 week, 1.6 at 4 weeks, and 1.6 at 6 months.

Conclusion: Patients with neck pain who met 4 of 6 of the CPR criteria for successful treatment of neck pain with a thoracic spine TJM demonstrated a more favorable response when the TJM was directed to the cervical spine rather than the thoracic spine. Patients receiving cervical TJM also demonstrated fewer transient side-effects.

Level of evidence: Therapy, level 1b.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Exercise Therapy / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Manipulation, Spinal / methods*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neck Pain / rehabilitation*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Thoracic Vertebrae
  • Treatment Outcome