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Chiropractors cannot agree on which lumbar joints should be manipulated for back pain

PainSci » bibliography » French et al 2000
Tags: chiropractic, controversy, spinal adjustment, back pain, manual therapy, treatment, debunkery, spine, pain problems

Four articles on PainSci cite French 2000: 1. The Complete Guide to Low Back Pain2. The Complete Guide to Neck Pain & Cricks3. Is Diagnosis for Pain Problems Reliable?4. Trigger Point Doubts

PainSci commentary on French 2000: ?This page is one of thousands in the bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided wherever possible.

I do enjoy reliability studies, and this is one of my favourites. Three chiropractors were given twenty patients with chronic low back pain to assess, using a complete range of common chiropractic diagnostic techniques, the works. Incredibly, assessing only a handful of lumbar joints, the chiropractors agreed which joints needed adjustment only about a quarter of the time (just barely better than guessing). That’s an oversimplification, but true in spirit: they couldn’t agree on much, and researchers concluded that all of these chiropractic diagnostic procedures “should not be seen … to provide reliable information concerning where to direct a manipulative procedure.”

~ Paul Ingraham

original abstract Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.

OBJECTIVE: To assess the intraexaminer and interexaminer reliability of a multidimensional spinal diagnostic method commonly used by chiropractors.

DESIGN: An intraexaminer and interexaminer Latin square, repeated measures reliability study. The techniques of diagnosis under investigation included visual postural analysis, pain description by the patient, plain static erect x-ray film of the lumbar spine, leg length discrepancy, neurologic tests, motion palpation, static palpation, and orthopedic tests.

PARTICIPANTS: Three experienced chiropractors examined 19 patients, and 2 experienced chiropractors examined 10 and 9 patients, respectively, who were suffering from chronic mechanical low-back pain.

RESULTS: Intraexaminer reliability of the decision to manipulate a certain spinal segmental level was moderate (kappa = 0.47). The interexaminer agreement pooled across all spinal joints indicated fair agreement (kappa = 0.27). Interexaminer reliability for individual examiner pairs for the L4/L5 segmental level was slight (kappa = 0.09). At the L5/S1 level, the interexaminer reliability was fair (kappa = 0.25). For the sacroiliac joints, interexaminer reliability was slight (kappa = 0.04 and 0.14).

CONCLUSION: This study of commonly used chiropractic diagnostic methods in patients with chronic mechanical low-back pain to detect manipulable lesions in the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine, and the sacroiliac joints has revealed that the measures are not reproducible. The implementation of these examination techniques alone should not be seen by practitioners to provide reliable information concerning where to direct a manipulative procedure in patients with chronic mechanical low-back pain.

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