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Introduction

Low-back pain is a common condition that can be difficult to treat. Spinal manipulation is among the treatment options used by people with low-back pain in attempts to relieve pain and improve functioning. It is performed by chiropractors and other health care professionals such as physical therapists, osteopaths, and some conventional medical doctors. This fact sheet summarizes the current scientific knowledge about the effects of spinal manipulation on low-back pain.

Key Points

Key points
  • Evidence indicates that spinal manipulation can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain. It appears to be as effective as conventional treatments, and recent guidelines for health care practitioners include it as a treatment option for pain that does not improve with self-care.
  • Spinal manipulation is generally a safe treatment for low-back pain. The most common side effects (e.g., discomfort in the treated area) are minor and go away within 1 to 2 days. Serious complications are very rare.
  • Recent research into spinal manipulation for low-back pain has begun to look at the effects of different forms of manipulation, as well as treatment duration and frequency.
  • Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

About Low-Back Pain

Low back pain

Each year, up to one-quarter of U.S. adults experience low-back pain. Most people have significant back pain at least once in their lives; often, the cause is unknown. Back pain varies widely. For many people, it lasts only a few weeks, no matter what treatment is used. But for others, the pain can become chronic and even debilitating. Low-back pain is a challenging condition to diagnose, treat, and study.

Spinal Manipulation and Low-Back Pain

Spinal manipulation

Spinal manipulation - sometimes called "spinal manipulative therapy" - is practiced by health care professionals such as chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths, and some conventional medical doctors. Practitioners perform spinal manipulation by using their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine, moving it beyond its passive range of motion. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used. The goal of the treatment is to relieve pain and improve physical functioning.

In the United States, spinal manipulation is often performed as part of chiropractic care. Chiropractic is a health care approach that focuses on the relationship between the body's structure—mainly the spine—and its functioning. In chiropractic, spinal manipulation is sometimes called "adjustment." Back problems are the most common reason people seek chiropractic care. (For background information on chiropractic, see Chiropractic: An Introduction.)

What the Science Says

What the science says

Study Findings to Date

Overall, studies have shown that spinal manipulation can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain and appears to be as effective as conventional medical treatments. In 2007 guidelines, the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society include spinal manipulation as one of several treatment options for practitioners to consider using when pain does not improve with self-care.

Research is under way to determine whether the effects of spinal manipulation depend on the duration and frequency of treatment. Recent studies have found that spinal manipulation provides relief from low-back pain at least over the short term (i.e., up to 3 months), and that pain-relieving effects may continue for up to 1 year. In one study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) that examines long-term effects in more than 600 people with low-back pain, results to date suggest that chiropractic care involving spinal manipulation is at least as effective as conventional medical care for up to 18 months. However, less than 20 percent of participants in this study were pain free at 18 months, regardless of the type of treatment used.

Challenges Facing Researchers

When considering the evidence on spinal manipulation for low-back pain, it is important to know about the research behind the evidence. Although many clinical trials have been conducted, earlier trials tended to be small and poorly designed, making their findings less reliable. Moreover, studies have differed in focus (the specific type of back pain treated and form of manipulation used) and design (comparisons with other treatments vs. placebos). It can be difficult to clearly interpret findings when what is being measured varies widely from one study to the next. Recent research has begun to address these issues.

Side Effects and Risks

Headaches

Common Side Effects

Reviews have concluded that spinal manipulation is relatively safe when performed by a trained and licensed practitioner. The most common side effects are generally minor and include temporary discomfort in the treated area, headache, or tiredness. These effects usually go away in 1 to 2 days.

Serious Complications

The rate of serious complications from spinal manipulation, although not definitely known, appears to be very low overall. A potential complication from low-back manipulation is cauda equina syndrome, a condition in which nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord become compressed, resulting in pain, weakness, and loss of feeling in one or both legs. Other functions—such as bowel or bladder control—may also be affected. Reports indicate that cauda equina syndrome is an extremely rare complication. In people whose pain is caused by a herniated disc, manipulation of the low back also appears to have a very low chance of either causing or worsening cauda equina syndrome.

NCCAM - Funded Research

NCCAM - Funded Research

Projects supported by NCCAM to study spinal manipulation for low-back pain include studies of:

  • The optimal number and frequency of treatments, and the duration of care;
  • Estimated use, costs, and outcomes of chiropractic care for recurrent back pain;
  • What happens in the body during manipulation of the low back.

References

  1. Assendelft WJ, Morton SC, Yu EI, et al. Spinal manipulative therapy for low back pain. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2003;138(11):871–881.
  2. Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. CDC Advance Data Report #343. 2004.
  3. Bronfort G, Haas M, Evans R, et al. Evidence-informed management of chronic low back pain with spinal manipulation and mobilization. Spine Journal. 2008;8(1):213–225.
  4. Bronfort G, Haas M, Evans RL, et al. Efficacy of spinal manipulation and mobilization for low back pain and neck pain: a systematic review and best evidence synthesis. Spine Journal. 2004;4(3):335–356.
  5. Cagnie B, Vinck E, Beernaert A, et al. How common are side effects of spinal manipulation and can these side effects be predicted? Manual Therapy. 2004;9(3):151–156.
  6. Cambron JA, Gudavalli MR, Hedeker D, et al. One-year follow-up of a randomized clinical trial comparing flexion distraction with an exercise program for chronic low-back pain. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2006;12(7):659–668.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health, United States, 2006. Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2006. Publication no. 2007–1232. Accessed on March 27, 2008.
  8. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Deyo RA, et al. A review of the evidence for the effectiveness, safety, and cost of acupuncture, massage therapy, and spinal manipulation for back pain. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2003;138(11):898–906.
  9. Chou R, Huffman LH. Nonpharmacologic therapies for acute and chronic low-back pain: a review of the evidence for and American Pain Society/American College of Physicians clinical practice guideline. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2007;147(7):492–504. Kaptchuk TJ, Eisenberg DM. Chiropractic: origins, controversies, and contributions. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1998;158(20):2215–2224.
  10. Chou R, Qaseem A, Snow V, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of low-back pain: a joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2007;147(7):478–491.
  11. Coulter ID, Hurwitz EL, Adams AH, et al. Patients using chiropractors in North America: who are they, and why are they in chiropractic care? Spine. 2002;27(3):291–296.
  12. Ferreira ML, Ferreira PH, Latimer J, et al. Comparison of general exercise, motor control exercise and spinal manipulative therapy for chronic low back pain: a randomized trial. Pain. 2007;131(1–2):31–37.
  13. Ferreira ML, Ferreira PH, Latimer J, et al. Efficacy of spinal manipulative therapy for low back pain of less than 3 months' duration. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2003;26(9):593–601.
  14. Gudavalli MR, Cambron JA, McGregor M, et al. A randomized clinical trial and subgroup analysis to compare flexion-distraction with active exercise for chronic low back pain. European Spine Journal. 2006;15(7):1070–1082.
  15. Haldeman S, Kohlbeck FJ, McGregor M. Stroke, cerebral artery dissection, and cervical spine manipulation therapy. Journal of Neurology. 2002;249(8):1098–1104.
  16. Hoiriis KT, Pfleger B, McDuffie FC, et al. A randomized clinical trial comparing chiropractic adjustments to muscle relaxants for subacute low back pain. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2004;27(6):388–398.
  17. Hurwitz EL, Morgenstern H, Kominski GF, et al. A randomized trial of chiropractic and medical care for patients with low back pain: eighteen-month follow-up outcomes from the UCLA low back pain study. Spine. 2006;31(6):611–621.
  18. Kaptchuk TJ, Eisenberg DM. Chiropractic: origins, controversies, and contributions. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1998;158(20):2215–2224.
  19. Kinkade S. Evaluation and treatment of acute low back pain. American Family Physician. 2007;75(8):1181–1188.
  20. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders. Handout on Health: Back Pain. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders; 2005. NIH publication no. 05–5282. Accessed on March 27, 2008.
  21. Oliphant D. Safety of spinal manipulation in the treatment of lumbar disk herniations: a systematic review and risk assessment. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2004;27(3):197–210.
  22. Santilli V, Beghi E, Finucci S. Chiropractic manipulation in the treatment of acute back pain and sciatica with disc protrusion: a randomized double-blind clinical trial of active and simulated spinal manipulations. The Spine Journal. 2006;6(2):131–137.
  23. Senstad O, Leboeuf-Yde C, Borchgrevink C. Frequency and characteristics of side effects of spinal manipulative therapy. Spine. 1997;22(4):435–440.
  24. Tindle HA, Davis RB, Phillips RS, and Eisenberg DM. Trends in use of complementary and alternative medicine by US adults: 1997-2002. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2005;11(1):42–49.
  25. van Tulder MW, Koes B, Malmivaara A. Outcome of non-invasive treatment modalities on back pain: an evidence-based review. European Spine Journal. 2006;15(suppl 1):S64–S81.
  26. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in association with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

For More Information

For more information

NCCAM Clearinghouse

The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on CAM and NCCAM, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll–free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226
TTY (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers): 1-866-464-3615
Web site: nccam.nih.gov
E-mail: info@nccam.nih.gov

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), NIH

NIAMS supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of scientists; and the sharing of research-based information.

Web site: www.niams.nih.gov
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-877-22-NIAMS

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. CAM on PubMed, developed jointly by NCCAM and NLM, is a subset of the PubMed system and focuses on the topic of CAM.

Web site: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez
CAM on PubMed: nccam.nih.gov/camonpubmed/

ClinicalTrials.gov

ClinicalTrials.gov is a database of information on federally and privately supported clinical trials (research studies in people) for a wide range of diseases and conditions. It is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Web site: www.clinicaltrials.gov

CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects)

CRISP is a database of information on federally funded scientific and medical research projects being conducted at research institutions.

Web site: report.nih.gov/crisp/

Acknowledgements and Notices

IMPORTANT:  The information on this website is NOT intended to substitute for the expertise and advice of a qualified healthcare professional. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with a qualified healthcare professional.

The mention of any product, service, or therapy is NOT an endorsement.

Neither the author nor the publisher shall be responsible for any damage or harm caused by the improper use of information in this website.

Any diagnostic or treatment options presented herein are for general informational purposes and may NOT necessarily represent tests or treatments that your healthcare professional performs, provides, or would recommend. The information is simply provided for educational purposes and in a good faith effort to help patients make a more informed decision about their healthcare.

Furthermore, any tests or treatments presented herein may NOT be comprehensive with regard to all the diagnostic or therapeutic options that may be available for any given medical condition or disease. Accordingly, you should always discuss any decisions about treatment or care with a qualified healthcare professional.

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Artistic renderings of any medical condition, disease, or treatment in this website are for illustrative purposes only and may NOT be a realistic depiction of actual medical conditions, diseases, patients, or treatments. Actual outcomes of any medical condition or actual results achieved by any treatment may be significantly different due to variations in the delivery of healthcare and the individual circumstances of each patient.

"Spinal Manipulation for Low-Back Pain"
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