Rubinstein SM, de Zoete A, van Middelkoop M, et al. Benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy for the treatment of chronic low back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2019 Mar 13;364:l689. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l689. (Systematic review)

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.

Discipline Area Score
Physician 5 / 7
Comments from MORE raters

Physician rater

This negative-ish study may be useful to dissuade patients from seeking useless and risky interventions.

Physician rater

This systematic review reaffirms support of spinal manipulative therapy for low back pain. The spinal manipulation in the included studies was by a number of providers including chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths and others. There are many low back pain interventions that appear to have a roughly equal benefit, so providers should offer what patients are interested in receiving. My only concern with this study is the unjustified exclusion of sciatica.
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