Background: Although there is evidence that spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) can reduce pain, the mechanisms involved are not well established. There is a need to review the scientific literature to establish the evidence-base for the reduction of pain following SMT.
Objectives: To determine if SMT can reduce experimentally induced pain, and if so, if the effect is i) only at the level of the treated spinal segment, ii) broader but in the same general region as SMT is performed, or iii) systemic.
Design: A systematic critical literature review.
Methods: A systematic search was performed for experimental studies on healthy volunteers and people without chronic syndromes, in which the immediate effect of SMT was tested. Articles selected were reviewed blindly by two authors. A summary quality score was calculated to indicate level of manuscript quality. Outcome was considered positive if the pain-reducing effect was statistically significant. Separate evidence tables were constructed with information relevant to each research question. Results were interpreted taking into account their manuscript quality.
Results: Twenty-two articles were included, describing 43 experiments, primarily on pain produced by pressure (n = 27) or temperature (n = 9). Their quality was generally moderate. A hypoalgesic effect was shown in 19/27 experiments on pressure pain, produced by pressure in 3/9 on pain produced by temperature and in 6/7 tests on pain induced by other measures. Second pain provoked by temperature seems to respond to SMT but not first pain. Most studies revealed a local or regional hypoalgesic effect whereas a systematic effect was unclear. Manipulation of a "restricted motion segment" ("manipulable lesion") seemed not to be essential to analgesia. In relation to outcome, there was no discernible difference between studies with higher vs. lower quality scores.
Conclusions: These results indicate that SMT has a direct local/regional hypoalgesic effect on experimental pain for some types of stimuli. Further research is needed to determine i) if there is also a systemic effect, ii) the exact mechanisms by which SMT attenuates pain, and iii) whether this response is clinically significant.