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When Headaches Are a Pain in the Neck: Spinal Manipulation vs. Mobilization for Cervicogenic Headache

NOTE: Today we offer a double feature on the treatment of cervicogenic headache. My article is about a study that compared manipulation to mobilization; it is followed by retired chiropractor Sam Homola’s guest article on manipulation for cervicogenic headache. The two posts complement each other and also complement my post from last week on the possible risk of stroke with neck manipulation.


If a headache originates in the neck, does manipulation provide more relief than mobilization?

If a headache originates in the neck, does manipulation provide more relief than mobilization?

Cervicogenic headache (CGH) refers to headaches that are caused by problems in the neck, as opposed to headaches of non-neck etiology that may be accompanied by neck pain. There is controversy over whether CGH is even a valid diagnosis. Diagnostic criteria usually include unilateral headache triggered by head/neck movement or by pressure on the neck, headache that spreads to the neck, shoulder or arm; and often limited range of motion in the neck. If a nerve block in the neck relieves the headache, that would confirm that the pain originates in the neck, but nerve blocks are not routinely done and are not required for diagnosis.

Is manipulation effective for CGH?

There is controversy over whether spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for CGH. A 2005 systematic review concluded that “A greater number of well-designed, randomized, controlled trials are required to confirm or refute the effectiveness of spinal manipulation.” (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic

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Chiropractic and Stroke: No Evidence for Causation But Still Reason for Concern

neck adjustment
Can neck manipulation (by chiropractors or by other practitioners) cause strokes? Many of us think it can, but definitive proof is lacking. A recently published study looked at the available evidence. A systematic review found a small association between stroke and chiropractic care but concluded that the association was spurious and that there was no evidence for causation. My colleagues and I have written about this subject several times; some of the links are listed here. I certainly agree that there is no definitive evidence for causation, but I think there is evidence to support a strong enough probability of causation to constitute a good reason to avoid neck manipulation. (more…)

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October is National Chiropractic Health Month!

nchm-logo-for-web
October is National Chiropractic Health Month (NCHM) and chiropractors can’t resist the opportunity to overstate, obfuscate, and prevaricate in celebration.

They do this in the face of some unfortunate (for them) statistics revealed by a recent Gallup Poll. The Poll was paid for by Palmer College of Chiropractic as part of an effort to increase the chiropractic share of the health care pie. (There is also a secondary analysis of the poll in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics.) We’ll get to those stats in a few minutes.

But first, in celebration of NCHM, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) has produced a set of six graphics chiropractors can download and display. Four of them fudge on the facts. Let’s take a look at these graphics, compare them to the evidence cited in support of their claims, and see where the ACA went astray. (The ACA also hosted a twitter chat yesterday with the hashtag #PainFreeNation.)

chiro-infographic-spinal-manip-low-back-pain

The study cited as evidence for this graphic actually compared both manual thrust manipulation (MTM) and mechanical-assisted manipulation (MAM) to each other as well as manipulation versus usual medical care (UMC). Although MAM, such as the Activator Method, is the second most common manipulation technique used by American chiropractors, is increasing in popularity among them, and is touted to be a safe and effective alternative to MTM, this study found that MTM is more effective (at 4 weeks) than MAM and that MAM had no advantage over UMC. But you don’t see that in this graphic.

(more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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A Statement on Cervical Manipulation and Dissections

Extreme rotation of the atlas on the axis (at the atlantoaxial joint) stretches the vertebral artery.

Extreme rotation of the atlas on the axis (at the atlantoaxial joint) stretches the vertebral artery.

The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recently published in the journal Stroke a thorough analysis of the evidence for an association between cervical manipulative therapy (CMT) and both vertebral artery dissection (VAD) and internal carotid artery dissection (ICAD). The full article is online: “Cervical Arterial Dissections and Association With Cervical Manipulative Therapy: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.” For background, an arterial dissection is essentially a tear in the inner lining of the artery. This tear disrupts the normal flow of blood, and also causes platelets to gather at the site of injury. This can result in a blood clot at the site of the dissection. This blood clot can block flow through the artery, or it can break off and lodge downstream, blocking flow at that point. Dissections, therefore, can result in a stroke (a lack of blood flow to a portion of the brain causing damage). There are four arteries in the neck that bring blood from the heart to the brain, two carotid arteries in the front, and two vertebral arteries in the back. A dissection in one or more of these arteries is associated with 2% of all strokes, but with 8-25% of strokes in patients <45 years old. This is mostly because strokes associated with processes like atherosclerosis are much less common in the younger population. Arterial dissections are classified as either spontaneous or traumatic. Trauma can be either severe, such as whiplash injury from a car accident, or subtle, such as from yoga or simply turning one’s neck to look past the shoulder. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Chiropractic Strokes Again: An Update

The risk of stroke with neck manipulation has been addressed on SBM before by Dr. Crislip, by myself, by chiropractor Samuel Homola, and by Jann Bellamy. I have listed the links at the end of this article for the convenience of interested readers. Recent studies merit a followup.

A case report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine July 17, 2012, describes a 37 year old nurse who had a history of chronic neck pain. She had been getting neck manipulations from her chiropractor once a month for 12-15 years! (One can only conclude that the manipulations had not accomplished much.) She developed a new symptom (pain when turning her head up and to the right), and at her 4th visit in a week, during neck manipulation, she heard a loud pop and immediately had the sensation that the room was spinning. She developed visual disturbances, vomited, and had a loss of balance, persistently falling to the left. The chiropractor failed to recognize her symptoms as signs of a stroke. Instead of rushing her to the ER, he performed an  “occipital adjustment” in an attempt to relieve her symptoms. She went to the ER 1.5 hours after the event and was found to have a cervical artery dissection. She was discharged from the hospital after 48 hours but has residual symptoms. The authors’ conclusion:

Although incidence of cervical artery dissection precipitated by chiropractic neck manipulation is unknown, it is an important risk. Given that risk, physical therapy exercises may be a safer option than spinal manipulation for patients with neck pain.

(more…)

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Blind-Spot Mapping, Cortical Function, and Chiropractic Manipulation

Steven Novella recently wrote about so-called “chiropractic neurology” and its most outspoken proponent, Ted Carrick.  In 2005 I published an article in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine (Vol 9, No 1, p. 11-15) entitled “Blind-Spot Mapping, Cortical Function, and Chiropractic Manipulation.” It was an analysis of a study Carrick had published.

Carrick read a shorter, popularized version of my critique in Skeptical Inquirer and responded with a diatribe that was inaccurate, distorted what I had said, and accused me of fraud, deception, and mis-representation.  He failed to offer a credible rebuttal of my specific criticisms; and, in my opinion, showed that he failed to understand some of my points. He referred to me as “Ms. Hall” and suggested that I was psychotic. He characterized my e-mail correspondence with him as “bizarre, rude, and offensive.” It was none of those, and I have copies of the e-mails to prove it. Carrick says he “forwarded it to the legal council for the American Chiropractic Association for review.”  Now that strikes me as bizarre.

I am re-publishing the entire text of my article here as an instructive example of what passes for science in the chiropractic neurology community. Readers can judge for themselves whether my critique amounts to fraud and whether I am showing signs of psychosis, whether Carrick is a good scientist and whether his reply to my critique was appropriate. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Ophthalmology

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Kaiser Rejects Neck Manipulation

Despite quackademia, anti-vaccine propaganda, and other discouraging trends, the news is not all bad. A major HMO has taken a decisive action in support of science-based medicine. 

Kaiser Permanente Mid Atlantic States and Mid-Atlantic Permanente Group recently announced the elimination of neck manipulation from their chiropractic coverage. The revised policy states,

Given the paucity of data related to beneficial effects of chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine and the real potential for catastrophic adverse events, it was decided to exclude chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine from coverage. 

Their decision was applauded by some  but was predictably attacked by chiropractors. (more…)

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Neck Manipulation: Risk vs. Benefit

neck adjustment
While manipulation of any kind has the potential to cause injury, stroke caused by neck manipulation is of greatest concern. Risk must always be weighed against benefit when upper neck manipulation is considered. Risk of stroke caused by neck manipulation is statistically low, but the risk is serious enough to outweigh benefit in all but a few rare, carefully selected cases.

When the RAND (Research and Development) organization published its review of the literature on cervical spine manipulation and mobilization in 1996, it concluded that only about 11.1% of reported indications for cervical spine manipulation were appropriate and that stroke and other serious complications occurred about 1.46 times per one million neck manipulations.1 In the same year, after examining 183 cases of vertebrobasilar stroke that occurred from 1934 through 1994 following neck manipulation, the National Chiropractic Mutual Insurance Company (NCMIC) concluded that “It has to be accepted that VBS [vertebrobasilar stroke] following SMT [spinal manipulative therapy] does occur.”2
(more…)

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The Problem with Chiropractic NUCCA

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Atwood, who would normally be scheduled to post today, is on vacation. Consequently, we are publishing the following guest post by Samuel Homola, D.C., a retired chiropractor who limited his practice to science-based methods and spoke out against the irrational and abusive practices of his colleagues. He is the author of Inside Chiropractic and Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism and co-author with Stephen Barrett of the skeptical Chirobase website, a division of Quackwatch) .


Daniel David Palmer, creator of the nebulous subluxation and father of chiropractic.

Daniel David Palmer, creator of the nebulous subluxation and father of chiropractic.

In 1895, Daniel David Palmer, a magnetic healer, announced that “95 percent of diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae; the remainder by luxations of other joints.” He opened the first chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa—the Palmer Infirmary, which offered a three-week course of instruction.

In 1906, D.D. Palmer’s son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer, a 1902 graduate of the Palmer Infirmary, took over his father’s school. In 1924, claiming that “subluxation” of any vertebra would cause disease by compressing nerves in the intervertebral foramina, B.J. Palmer introduced the  “Neurocalometer,” a thermocouple device guaranteed to locate nerve-pinching vertebral subluxations. Chiropractors were told that if they did not use this “infallible” device to measure heat differentials on the skin over the spine, they could not competently locate and adjust a subluxation. But the Neurocalometer was not for sale. Chiropractors were forced to lease the instrument and then pay a monthly rent.

In the early 1930s, after nearly three decades of teaching that subluxations anywhere in the spine can cause disease, B.J. Palmer announced that he had found the one and only cause of disease: subluxation of the atlas. Palmer concluded that subluxation of a spinal vertebra below the axis was not possiblebecause vertebrae below that level were bound together by intervertebral discs and interlocking joints. Students at the Palmer School of Chiropractic were not permitted to adjust the spine below the axis until 1949 when full-spine techniques were once again included in the course of instruction.

B.J. Palmer’s “hole-in-one” (HIO) technique for adjusting the atlas and the axis remained popular among certain factions of the chiropractic profession. According to the 2005 edition of Job Analysis of Chiropractic, published by the National Board of Chiropractic Examines, 25.7% of practicing chiropractors include the “Palmer upper cervical/HIO” technique in their adjustive procedures. (more…)

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Chiropractic and Stroke

I wonder how many people have heard that chiropractic neck adjustments can cause strokes. It isn’t exactly common knowledge. One organization is trying to raise public awareness through signs on the side of city buses (Injured by a Chiropractor? Call this number) and through TV commercials. I had never heard about this phenomenon myself until a few years ago, when I heard it mentioned on an episode of Alan Alda’s Scientific American Frontiers. I questioned his accuracy, but I quickly found confirmation in the medical literature.

A typical case was that of 24 year old Kristi Bedenbaugh who saw her chiropractor for sinus headaches. During a neck manipulation she suffered a brain stem stroke and she died three days later. Autopsy revealed that the manipulation had split the inside walls of both of her vertebral arteries, causing the walls to balloon and block the blood supply to the lower part of her brain. Additional studies concluded that blood clots had formed on the days the manipulation took place. The chiropractor later paid a $1000 fine. (more…)

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