When it comes to treating patients with chronic low back pain (cLBP), doctors of chiropractic commonly use a multi-modal approach that involves manual therapies, like spinal manipulation and mobilization, combined with supervised and/or home-based exercises. Why is that?
In many cases, the superficial paraspinal muscles of patients with back pain will tighten as a reflex in an effort to restrict movement and protect the area from further injury. Unfortunately, such a restriction can result in altered movement patterns that raise the risk for further injury (and pain) elsewhere in the lower back (or even in other areas of the body). On top of that, because the superficial back muscles have abnormally assumed the job of maintaining posture, the deep muscles in the back can become deconditioned and weak, which only raises the risk for further back issues.
So, when it comes to chronic back pain, the job of a chiropractor is two-fold: restore proper joint motion to “turn off” this abnormal reflex muscle spasm and to strengthen the deep muscles so the superficial muscles can return to their normal function.
In a 2011 study, researchers randomly assigned 301 cLBP patients (adults over 65 years old with a five or more year history of chronic low back pain) to one of three treatment groups: supervised exercise therapy (SET); spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), or home exercise and advice (HEA).
Researchers monitored each participant’s progress for over a year and found that members of each group achieved similar short- and long-term improvements with respect to pain, disability, global improvement, general health status, and medication use. Though the patients in the SET group experienced greater gains with respect to trunk muscle strength, endurance, and range of motion in comparison with the home-based exercise group, the difference in results is understandable as the SET protocol was much more intensive.
Though this study did not specifically look at the effect of combining exercise and spinal manipulation for the treatment of cLBP, several guidelines that have looked at the available evidence recommend using such a multi-pronged approach for this group of patients. For example, in 2018, the Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative wrote, “A multimodal approach including SMT, other commonly used active interventions, self-management advice, and exercise is an effective treatment strategy for acute and chronic back pain, with or without leg pain.”