National Institutes of Health • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Spinal Manipulation for Low-Back Pain:
What the Science Says
Overall, studies have shown that spinal manipulation is one of several options—including exercise, massage, and physical therapy—that can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain. Spinal manipulation also appears to work as well as conventional treatments such as applying heat, using a firm mattress, and taking pain-relieving medications.
In 2007 guidelines, the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society included spinal manipulation as one of several treatment options for practitioners to consider when low-back pain does not improve with self-care. More recently, a 2010 Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) report noted that complementary health therapies, including spinal manipulation, offer additional options to conventional treatments, which often have limited benefit in managing back and neck pain. The AHRQ analysis also found that spinal manipulation was more effective than placebo and as effective as medication in reducing low-back pain intensity. However, the researchers noted inconsistent results when they compared spinal manipulation with massage or physical therapy to reduce low-back pain intensity or disability.
- A 2011 review of 26 clinical trials looked at the effectiveness of different treatments, including spinal manipulation, for chronic low-back pain. The authors concluded that spinal manipulation is as effective as other interventions for reducing pain and improving function.
- A 2010 review that looked at various manual therapies, such as spinal manipulation and massage, for a range of conditions found strong evidence that spinal manipulation is effective for chronic low-back pain and moderate evidence of its effectiveness for acute low-back pain.
- A 2009 analysis looked at the evidence from 76 trials that studied the effects of several conventional and complementary health practices for low-back pain. The researchers found that the pain-relieving effects of many treatments, including spinal manipulation, were small and were similar in people with acute or chronic pain.
- A 2008 review that focused on spinal manipulation for chronic low-back pain found strong evidence that spinal manipulation works as well as a combination of medical care and exercise instruction, moderate evidence that spinal manipulation combined with strengthening exercises works as well as prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs combined with exercises, and limited-to-moderate evidence that spinal manipulation works better than physical therapy and home exercise.
Researchers are investigating whether the effects of spinal manipulation depend on the length and frequency of treatment. In one study funded by NCCAM that examined long-term effects in more than 600 people with low-back pain, results suggested that chiropractic care involving spinal manipulation was 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.
Researchers are also exploring how spinal manipulation affects the body. In an NCCAM-funded study of a small group of people with low-back pain, spinal manipulation affected pain perception in specific ways that other therapies (stationary bicycle and low-back extension exercises) did not.
Managing Low-Back Pain
A review of evidence-based clinical guidelines for managing low-back pain resulted in several recommendations for primary care physicians and pointed to potential benefits of nondrug therapies including spinal manipulation, as well as exercise, massage, and physical therapy:
- Acute low-back pain: Routine imaging (x-rays or MRIs) generally is not necessary for patients who have had nonspecific low-back pain for a short time. These patients often improve on their own and usually should remain active, learn about back pain and self-care options, and consider nondrug therapies, including spinal manipulation, if pain persists longer than 4 weeks.
- Chronic low-back pain: Long-term use of opioid drugs usually does not improve functioning for patients with chronic low-back pain. However, these patients may benefit from nondrug therapies, including spinal manipulation. Psychological and social factors also may play a role in chronic low-back pain. Most patients will not become pain free; a realistic outlook focuses on improving function in addition to reducing pain.
- Reviews have concluded that spinal manipulation for low-back pain is relatively safe when performed by a trained and licensed practitioner. The most common side effects are generally minor and include feeling tired or temporary soreness.
- Reports indicate that cauda equina syndrome (CES), a significant narrowing of the lower part of the spinal canal in which nerves become pinched and may cause pain, weakness, loss of feeling in one or both legs, and bowel or bladder problems, may be an extremely rare complication of spinal manipulation. However, it is unclear if there is actually an association between spinal manipulation and CES, since CES usually occurs without spinal manipulation.
- In people whose pain is caused by a herniated disc, manipulation of the low back appears to have a very low chance of worsening the herniation.
- For risks associated with spinal manipulation affecting the upper (cervical) spine, see the NCCAM fact sheet Chiropractic: An Introduction.
NCCAM Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH, DHHS. NCCAM Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on CAM, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCAM-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. NCCAM is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.
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