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Benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy for the treatment of chronic low back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials

PainSci » bibliography » Rubinstein et al 2019
Tags: spinal adjustment, bad news, spine, treatment

Two articles on PainSci cite Rubinstein 2019: 1. Does Spinal Manipulation Work?2. Manual Therapy: What is it, and does it work?

PainSci commentary on Rubinstein 2019: ?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.

This review in the British Medical Journal continues the tradition of damning spinal manipulative therapy with extremely faint praise. It has a putatively positive conclusions, and so it will be widely cited by chiropractors as evidence of the efficacy of SMT for back pain. However, even trying to spin the data in favour of SMT, the conclusions seem tepid at best: they not some short term benefits, and declaring that “SMT produces similar effects to recommended therapies for chronic low back pain.” But chronic low back pain is notoriously untreatable, and all treatments produce minor short term benefits and no long term benefits (see Artus, Machado). The evidence has been available for many years that SMT is just as ineffective as everything else. These conclusions are disingenuous nonsense.

There are other serious methodological concerns here, summarized by Mary O'Keeffe & Neil O'Connell in a letter to the editors of the British Medical Journal. Their conclusions are far more in tune with the evidence reviewed:

These results demonstrate no convincing evidence for the superiority of SMT over sham SMT and a lack of clinically important benefit of SMT when compared with any other treatment. The lack of a benefit of SMT over sham therapy indicates that SMT is unlikely to have any direct benefits and observed improvements are the result of contextual and other effects. It is likely that the apparent equivalence with both ‘recommended’ and ‘non-recommended’ therapies tells us more about the disappointing effectiveness of those approaches than it does about the benefit of SMT.

~ 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 benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) for the treatment of chronic low back pain.

DESIGN: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.

DATA SOURCES: Medline, PubMed, Embase, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), CINAHL, Physiotherapy Evidence Database (PEDro), Index to Chiropractic Literature, and trial registries up to 4 May 2018, including reference lists of eligible trials and related reviews.

ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA FOR SELECTING STUDIES: Randomised controlled trials examining the effect of spinal manipulation or mobilisation in adults (≥18 years) with chronic low back pain with or without referred pain. Studies that exclusively examined sciatica were excluded, as was grey literature. No restrictions were applied to language or setting.

REVIEW METHODS: Two reviewers independently selected studies, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias and quality of the evidence. The effect of SMT was compared with recommended therapies, non-recommended therapies, sham (placebo) SMT, and SMT as an adjuvant therapy. Main outcomes were pain and back specific functional status, examined as mean differences and standardised mean differences (SMD), respectively. Outcomes were examined at 1, 6, and 12 months. Quality of evidence was assessed using GRADE. A random effects model was used and statistical heterogeneity explored.

RESULTS: 47 randomised controlled trials including a total of 9211 participants were identified, who were on average middle aged (35-60 years). Most trials compared SMT with recommended therapies. Moderate quality evidence suggested that SMT has similar effects to other recommended therapies for short term pain relief (mean difference -3.17, 95% confidence interval -7.85 to 1.51) and a small, clinically better improvement in function (SMD -0.25, 95% confidence interval -0.41 to -0.09). High quality evidence suggested that compared with non-recommended therapies SMT results in small, not clinically better effects for short term pain relief (mean difference -7.48, -11.50 to -3.47) and small to moderate clinically better improvement in function (SMD -0.41, -0.67 to -0.15). In general, these results were similar for the intermediate and long term outcomes as were the effects of SMT as an adjuvant therapy. Evidence for sham SMT was low to very low quality; therefore these effects should be considered uncertain. Statistical heterogeneity could not be explained. About half of the studies examined adverse and serious adverse events, but in most of these it was unclear how and whether these events were registered systematically. Most of the observed adverse events were musculoskeletal related, transient in nature, and of mild to moderate severity. One study with a low risk of selection bias and powered to examine risk (n=183) found no increased risk of an adverse event (relative risk 1.24, 95% confidence interval 0.85 to 1.81) or duration of the event (1.13, 0.59 to 2.18) compared with sham SMT. In one study, the Data Safety Monitoring Board judged one serious adverse event to be possibly related to SMT.

CONCLUSION: SMT produces similar effects to recommended therapies for chronic low back pain, whereas SMT seems to be better than non-recommended interventions for improvement in function in the short term. Clinicians should inform their patients of the potential risks of adverse events associated with SMT.

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