Chiropractic Therapy Gives ‘Modest’ Relief to Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

When it comes to treating short-term back pain, spinal manipulation may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

In a review published in JAMA of over two dozen clinical trials involving over 1,700 patients, researchers said chiropractic adjustments provided only “modest” relief for acute low back pain – pain that lasts no more than 6 weeks.

The improvement in pain and function were considered “statistically significant,” but researchers said it was about the same as taking over-the-counter pain relievers. Over half of the patients also experienced side effects from having their spines manipulated, including increased pain, muscle stiffness and headache.

Although the study findings are mixed on the benefits of chiropractic treatment, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) said it “adds to a growing body of recent research supporting the use of spinal manipulative therapy.”

“As the nation struggles to overcome the opioid crisis, research supporting non-drug treatments for pain should give patients and health care providers confidence that there are options that help avoid the risks and dependency associated with prescription medications,” said ACA President David Herd, DC.

Last month the ACA approved a resolution supporting new guidelines by the American College of Physicians (ACP), which recommend spinal manipulation, massage, heating pads and other non-drug therapies as first line treatments for chronic low back pain.

“By identifying and adopting guidelines that ACA believes reflect best practices based on the best available scientific evidence on low back pain, we hope not only to enhance outcomes but also to create greater consensus regarding patient care among chiropractors, other health care providers, payers and policy makers,” said Herd.

But the ACP guidelines are hardly a ringing endorsement of spinal manipulation. The overall evidence was considered low quality that chiropractic adjustments can “have a small effect on function” and that they provide “no difference in pain relief.”

In fact, the best treatment for acute low back pain may be none at all.

"Physicians should reassure their patients that acute and subacute low back pain usually improves over time regardless of treatment," said ACP President Nitin Damle, MD.

One in four adults will experience low back pain in the next three months, making it one of the most common reasons for Americans to visit a doctor. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, more than 35 million people visit a chiropractor annually.