How Does Chiropractic Stack Up for Low Back Pain?

Doctors of chiropractic offer a non-surgical, treatment protocol for both acute and chronic low back pain (LBP), as do several other healthcare delivery systems. However, due to patient preference and a rising concern for potentially harmful side-effects, many LBP patients seek management strategies that offer a natural, non-pharmaceutical approach, of which chiropractic is the most commonly sought after practitioner-type. So what evidence is there regarding the benefits of chiropractic vs. other forms of care in managing LBP and its associated pain-related functional loss? 

A 2018 study published in the online Journal of the American Medical Association focused directly on this question by comparing patient outcomes of those receiving usual medical care to a second group of patients that also received chiropractic care.

Data was collected at three sites—two large military medical centers and one smaller hospital at a military training site—over the 3.5-year time period. Eligible participants included active duty United States service members between 18 and 50 years in age who were diagnosed with mechanical low back pain. 

Patients in each group received usual medical care for six weeks that included self-care, medications, physical therapy, and pain clinic referral. Participants in one group also received chiropractic care that included spinal manipulative therapy in the low back and adjacent regions and additional therapeutic procedures such as rehabilitative exercise, cryotherapy, superficial heat, and other manual therapies. 

Up to six weeks after the conclusion of care, the researchers reported that patients in the  chiropractic group scored higher with respect to LBP intensity, disability, perceived improvement, satisfaction, and medication use. The researchers concluded that this trial clearly shows the need for chiropractic care for those suffering from LBP—reminding the reader that current LBP guidelines have embraced chiropractic care as a FIRST line of treatment for LBP.

This is not the first study to show the benefits of chiropractic care, as prior high-quality studies have reported higher patient satisfaction levels, less medication use, higher quality of life scores, and less LBP-related disability and recurrence rates for patients receiving chiropractic treatment vs. usual medical care. This article was published in a highly regarded medical journal (JAMA) and CLEARLY supports the need for chiropractic care in the management of LBP.

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Can the Cervical Spine Cause Shoulder Pain?

Subacromial impingement (SAI) is a common injury in sporting activities that require overhead motions, especially among pitchers, quarterbacks, and swimmers. Not everyone responds to treatment to the same degree, and a new study that reviewed two specific cases may offer a possible reason: the neck.

One of the two cases involved a high school football quarterback and the other a collegiate swimmer. Both participants presented with signs and symptoms of subacromial impingement with minimal neck complaints and few clinical signs that initially supported neck involvement.

Of interest, both patients had poor posture that included forward head carriage and rounded forward shoulders. During the initial examination, both had shoulder pain and weakness while raising their arm up from the side, a “classic” sign of rotator cuff muscle injury and subacromial bursitis. However, neither case did well when treatment addressed only the shoulder, prompting their doctors to test whether or not the patients’ poor posture had a role in their shoulder discomfort.

Once the patients performed chin retraction exercises followed by chin retraction plus extension exercises (three sets of ten repetitions) to improve their posture, they experienced a complete improvement in shoulder impingement and muscle weakness. 

The author suspects that both patients experienced intermittent irritation of the C5 nerve root in the neck, which innervates the rotator cuff muscles, leading to their shoulder pain and weakness. In both cases, the two athletes performed home-based exercises and returned to their sports and did not have further problems during the rest of the season. 

These two cases are GREAT examples of why doctors of chiropractic evaluate the whole patient to identify any and all factors that may contribute to a patient’s chief complaint. It is very common to find cervical spine joint dysfunction in patients with shoulder pain, and success in treatment favors treating both areas, of which (as noted in these case studies) the neck may be the most important focus.

Can Chiropractic Adjustments Help Headaches?

Experts report that 157 million work days are lost each year in the United States due to headaches at a cost of about $50 billion in work absenteeism and medical expenses. According to current estimates, about 18% of chronic headache patients are believed to have cervicogenic headaches (CGH), or headaches that originate from dysfunction in the neck. 

Many CGH sufferers utilize complementary and integrative health treatment approaches for neck pain and headaches, of which spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is the most common. While past studies have demonstrated SMT to be a superior form of treatment for CGH, no one has investigated how many treatments are needed to achieve the maximum clinical benefit for CGH patients – at least not until recently!

In order to determine what dose of SMT may best benefit patients with headaches originating from the neck, researchers randomized 256 CGH patients into four treatment groups that received 0, 6, 12, or 18 SMT treatments over the course of six weeks. The researchers found a dose-dependent relationship between SMT and days without CGH over the following year with patients in the 18 visit group experiencing 16 fewer days with CGH over the next twelve months than those in the zero treatment group.

The chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy treatment used in the study consisted of high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust manipulation in the neck and upper back regions (specifically, occiput to T3) aimed at sites with detected joint dysfunction (fixation or pain), which is typically the method most chiropractors determine where to apply spinal manipulation.

This study is VERY important for a few reasons: 1) it proves SMT helps patients with CGH; 2) it provides doctors of chiropractic with an idea of how many visits it may take to obtain optimum results; and 3) it can be used as a guideline when managing CGH patients, stressing the important point that EACH patient is UNIQUE and modifications may be appropriate depending on each case.

Chiropractic Care for Headache Relief?

Woman Suffering From A HeadacheHeadaches have a significant impact on quality of life in both adults and children. Approximately 13% of patients who sought chiropractic care over the last decade did so for headache relief. Several studies have found that manual therapies, such as spinal manipulation and mobilization, can provide significant benefits for patients with both tension-type and migraine headaches—even better than standard medical care, in some cases.

In 2011, Canadian researchers reviewed data from 21 published studies to develop specific recommendations for chiropractic management of headaches. For episodic or chronic migraine and cervicogenic headaches (those caused by specific neck problems), they recommended spinal manipulation and other manual interventions, such as massage. Additionally, researchers noted that joint mobilization and strengthening exercises for the deep neck flexor muscles may also improve symptoms associated with cervicogenic headaches.

For episodic tension-type headache, the investigators did not find enough published evidence to support the use of spinal manipulation. They stated that, at the current time, “a recommendation cannot be made for or against the use of spinal manipulation for patients with chronic tension-type headache” (CTTH). However, they did report that low-load craniocervical mobilization “may be beneficial for longer term management of patients with episodic or chronic tension-type headaches.”

In contrast, following a randomized clinical trial of 80 patients with chronic tension-type headaches, Dutch researchers reported that “Manual therapy is more effective than usual [general practitioner] care in the short- and longer term in reducing symptoms of CTTH.”

Chiropractors utilize many types of manual therapies as a primary form of care for several complaints and conditions, including headaches.

The Red Flags of Low Back Pain

Treatment guidelines published around the world note that ruling out “red flags” is a healthcare provider’s number one responsibility, which is in line with the decree exhorted by all healthcare professionals when first entering practice to do no harm. When detected, red flags prompt a doctor to stop and immediately send the patient to the appropriate healthcare provider or emergency department to avoid a catastrophic outcome, which may include death.how-to-tell-if-your-back-pain-is-serious

The four main red flags cited for low back pain include: cancer, fracture, cauda equine syndrome, and infection. In 1992, Dr. Richard Deyo reported that the patient’s history is more important for identifying red flags than a routine physical exam, especially in the early stages of these conditions. This is partially why new patients need to fill out so much paperwork on their initial visit. These are the factors that suggest red flags when it comes to low back pain:

Cancer: a past history of cancer, unexplained weight loss, failure to improve with a month of therapy, no relief with bed rest, and duration of pain over one month. However, when the combination of age over 50 years, past history of cancer, unexplained weight loss, and failure to improve with one month of therapy exists, the sensitivity or “true-positive” reaches 100%—in other words, IT IS CANCER until proven otherwise!

Cauda equine syndrome: acute onset of urinary retention or overflow incontinence, loss of anal sphincter tone or fecal incontinence, “saddle” anesthesia, and global or progressive motor weakness in the lower limbs.

Infection: prolonged use of corticosteroids (such as organ transplant recipients); intravenous drug use; urinary tract, respiratory tract, or other infection; and immunosuppressant medication and/or condition.

Spinal fracture: history of significant trauma at any age; minor trauma in persons over 50 years of age; patient over 70 years of age with a history of osteoporosis (with or without trauma); and prolonged use of corticosteroids. A checklist that includes these important historical questions can be easily applied in any practice, which is highly recommended.

All healthcare providers—including chiropractors—managing patients in a primary care setting are obligated to rule out red flags in order to ensure patient safely when rendering treatment for LBP. The good news is that most cases of low back pain aren’t caused by these red flags and respond well to conservative chiropractic care!

Chiropractic and Hypertension

In a blood pressure reading, the higher number (“systolic”) represents the pressure that blood exerts against the arterial walls when the heart beats. The lower number (“diastolic”) represents the pressure blood exerts against the arterial walls when the heart rests between beats (measured in millimeters of mercury or mmHg). The definition of hypertension (HT), like so many other aspects of health, has been defined and redefined over the years. Let’s take a look at the current definition and what (if anything) chiropractic provides to help this VERY common condition.

The American Heart Association defines (as of November 2017) “NORMAL” as beinghypertension-and-diabetes-often-go-together <120/ and <80; “ELEVATED” as 120-129/ and <80; STAGE 1 HT: 130-139/ or 80-89; STAGE 2 HT: >140/ or, >90; HYPERTENSIVE CRISIS: >180/ and/or >120. Between the two numbers, the systolic blood pressure (BP) is generally given the most attention as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over age 50. A gradual increase in systolic BP normally occurs with increasing age as arteries gradually stiffen due to plaque build-up. Recent studies report that the risk of death from ischemic heart disease and stroke DOUBLES with every 20mmHg systolic or 10mm Hg diastolic BP increase in people from age 40-89.

So, CAN chiropractic help patients with hypertension? The answer is YES… at least in some cases. A placebo-controlled study published in 2007 (and spotlighted on “WebMD”) reported a specific type of chiropractic adjustment applied to the Atlas (C1) vertebra that

SIGNIFICANTLY lowered both systolic (by 14 mm Hg) and diastolic BP (by 8 mm Hg) in 25 patients with early-stage HT. This improvement did not occur in 25 control patients who received a sham procedure. This beneficial effect persisted for eight weeks during which time the patients took no medication for their condition.

Dr. George Bakris, the director of the University of Chicago hypertension center and lead author of the 2007 study wrote, “This procedure has the effect of not one, but two blood pressure medications given in combination. And it seems to be adverse-event free. We saw no side effects and no problems.”

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Case studies of chiropractic treatment lowering BP date back to the 1980s, and higher quality, larger scaled studies have been published in the last decade. One explanation on how chiropractic adjustments help to lower BP is that adjustments applied to C1 (the Atlas) affect the parasympathetic nervous system, which tends to lower the diastolic BP (lower number), while mid-thoracic manipulation—which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system—tends to lower the systolic BP (upper number) to a larger degree. Chiropractic care includes not only spinal manipulation, but also dietary counseling, and more—all WITHOUT the potential for the sometimes significant side-effects associated with medications.

ADHD and Chiropractic Care?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a controversial diagnosis, as there are no clear objective clinical tests that can establish whether or not a patient has the condition. ADHD belongs to a spectrum of neurological disorders with no physiological basis (no clear lab tests exist) and often include other conditions such as learning disabilities, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or Tourette’s syndrome. Early-onset mania or bipolar mixed state can be difficult to differentiate from ADHD or they may co-exist with ADHD.

To complicate matters with regard to diagnosing ADHD, some kids may simply be at the high-end of the normal range of activity or have difficult temperaments. Poor attention may be caused by altered vision or hearing, seizures, head trauma, acute or chronic illness, poor nutrition, insufficient sleep, anxiety disorders, depression, and/or the result of abuse or neglect. Various drugs (such as phenobarbital) may interfere with attention ADHDas well.

Since the 1990s, the number of prescriptions to treat ADHD has skyrocketed 700%, possibly due to the increased awareness of the symptoms associated with ADHD and/or an increase in the diagnoses for ADHD, often demanded by frustrated teachers and/or parents. The classic medical model has embraced the use of Ritalin (methylphenidate) to treat ADHD. For parents who would like to explore other avenues of treatment, what can Chiropractic offer?

In a recent study involving 28 children aged 5-15 years with a primary diagnosis of ADHD, investigators randomly assigned 14 participants to a spinal manipulation (SM) group with conventional care and the other 14 to a control group (conventional care only). The researchers found the patients in the SM group experienced better outcomes based on several assessments and that a larger scale study would be necessary to verify their findings.

Nutrition may also have a role to play in the management of ADHD. In a 2015 study, researchers provided Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (a probiotic) to infants at six months of age and then followed them for the next 13 years. At age 13, six of the children in a placebo group had been diagnosed with either ADHD or Asperger syndrome while none of the kids in the probiotic group had been affected by either condition. The researchers concluded that probiotic use early in life may reduce the risk of neuropsychiatric disorder development later in childhood.