To establish the intrarater reliability of ADC measurements, 3 weeks after the initial ADC measurements, the examiner who was blinded to previous measurement results repeated the ADC measurements on the scans of 16 randomly selected participants.
Spinal Manipulative Therapy
A standardized application of SMT as described by the CPR derivation study was provided to relevant participants (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix 2, available at: http://links.lww.com/BRS/B3).1,6 This technique applies a posteroinferior thrust to the patient's pelvis. A maximum of 2 thrusts were delivered to each side of the subject during each session.
Descriptive statistics were calculated for demographic data and outcome values for each group at each assessment. Continuous and categorical demographic data of various groups were compared by 1-way analysis of variance and χ2 test, respectively. Baseline physical characteristics of LBP and asymptomatic participants were compared by independent t tests. The significance level was set at 0.05.
The intraobserver reliability of ADC measurements at each vertebral level was analyzed by intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC3,1).
The serial changes in spinal stiffness and LM thickness ratios among groups were analyzed by separate repeated measures analyses of covariance, with time as a repeated measure, and group (LBP status and responder/nonresponder as defined by mODI) as the between-subject factor. The assumptions of analyses of covariance were evaluated. If the assumption of sphericity was violated, the Greehouse-Geisser correction was chosen to interpret the results.29 The post hoc tests included simple effect tests and tetrad analyses,30 with Bonferroni adjustment. Separate analyses of covariance were used to analyze the baseline and changes in diffusion at various IVD levels among LBP controls, responders, and nonresponders after the first SMT. The covariates for all tests were age, sex, and body mass index because prior research has suggested that these covariates may affect the measured physical variables.9,10,11,28,31,32
Pearson correlation was calculated to analyze the associations among the percent change in spinal stiffness, LM thickness ratios, and ADC values after the first SMT in +LBP/+SMT participants using pooled data. The effect sizes of correlation were considered to be small, medium, and large if coefficients were 0.10, 0.30, and 0.50, respectively.33
Although no participant dropped out from the +LBP/+SMT or +LBP/−SMT group, 2 asymptomatic participants dropped out after session 1 because of time conflicts, leaving 57 asymptomatic controls in this study. The LM muscle boundaries of 1 LBP participant and 2 asymptomatic participants were unidentifiable, leaving complete data of ultrasonography on 86 participants. After assessment of mODI results, 15 participants with LBP were classified as SMT responders and 17 as nonresponders.
Reliability of ADC Measurements
Of the 80 IVDs from 16 participants evaluated in this study, 4 IVDs were excluded from the ADC measurements because the disc space was smaller than the ROI. The intraclass correlation coefficient estimates ranged from 0.97 to 0.98.
Baseline Characteristics Between Groups
Baseline characteristics of participants are depicted in Table 2. Compared with participants with LBP, asymptomatic controls had significantly less prior LBP episodes and lower mODI scores. At baseline, there was no significant difference in spinal stiffness or LM thickness ratio among the −LBP/−SMT, responder, and nonresponder groups (Table 2). There was no significant difference in baseline lumbar IVD diffusion among +LBP/−SMT controls, responders, and nonresponders.
Post-SMT Change in Spinal Stiffness
The spinal stiffness of SMT responders was significantly reduced after each SMT (interaction for group-by-time: F5,332 = 10.50, P < 0.01, post hoc after each SMT, P < 0.05) (Figure 5), whereas the SMT nonresponders and −LBP/−SMT group showed no such change. These changes were sustained at day 7. Post hoc tests demonstrated that the responders' mean spinal stiffness at session 3 was significantly lower than their baseline values (average difference: −0.255 N/mm, 95% confidence interval [CI]: −0.079 to −0.431 N/mm).
Post-SMT Change in LM Thickness Ratios
SMT responders demonstrated significant increases in LM thickness ratios after the first SMT (interaction for group-by-time for L3–L4: F8,320 = 22.33, P < 0.01; L4–L5: F8,320 = 18.21, P < 0.01, post hoc test, P < 0.01) (Figure 6A, B). These improved post-SMT LM thickness ratios were sustained for more than 1 week (average difference of thickness ratio at L3–L4 LM: 3.83%, CI: 2.62%–5.04%; mean difference of L3–L4 LM: 4.38%, CI: 2.77%–5.98%). No similar change was noted in the nonresponders and the −LBP/−SMT group.
Post-SMT Change in IVD Diffusion
The inferior 3 lumbar IVDs showed significant between-group changes in ADC values (L3–L4: F2,42 = 8.66, P < 0.01; L4–L5: F2,41 = 19.93, P < 0.01; L5–S1: F2,41 = 6.45, P < 0.01) (Figure 7). Post hoc tests showed that only SMT responders had significant increases in diffusion within the L3–L4, L4–L5, and L5–S1 discs (P < 0.01) whereas no significant change was noted in the nonresponders, nor in the −LBP/−SMT group (average differences in percent changes of ADC values between responders and +LBP/−SMT group at L3–L4 disc: 4.91%, CI: 1.94%–7.87%; at L4–L5 disc: 6.50%, CI: 3.88%–9.13%; and at L5–S1 disc: 8.15%, CI: 4.14%–12.15%).
Post-SMT Associations Between Outcome Change Scores
After SMT application on session 1, decreases in spinal stiffness of participants with LBP were significantly associated with an increased LM thickness ratio at all measured levels (r = −0.59, P < 0.01) as well as with ADC values in the discs of L3–L4 and L4–L5 (r = −0.42 and −0.50, respectively, P < 0.01). Similarly, the percent increase in LM thickness ratio after the first SMT application was related to the corresponding increase in L3–L4 and L4–L5 disc diffusion (r = 0.35–0.47) (Table 3).
The current study is the first to determine that multiple biomechanical outcomes (physical and imaging) respond differently in those reporting improvement after SMT compared with those who do not report improvement. Importantly, key comparison and control groups were included in our methodology to minimize the possibility that our observations were due to measurement variability (+LBP/−SMT). Our results consist of several important findings. First, after 1 SMT application, SMT responders show immediate and sustained alterations in spinal biomechanics. These post-SMT changes are statistically significant compared with nonresponders and overlap with measures observed in asymptomatic controls. The differential responses of patients with LBP imply that certain unidentified biomechanical characteristics of nonresponders (e.g., spinal degeneration) may impede the effect of SMT. Alternatively, the large between-subject variations (standard deviations) in spinal stiffness and LM thickness ratios at baseline (Table 2), the small to medium effect sizes of these comparisons, or low statistical power might have prevented the identification of significant between-group difference in these characteristics at baseline. Our results justify continued investigations into characteristics defining SMT responders at baseline.
Several studies have demonstrated that various biomechanics of SMT responders change compared with nonresponders.9,10,11 Comparatively, our results are a significant development in that they (1) demonstrate that the various outcome measures that were responsive in prior individual investigations are also responsive when studied with a unified methodology in the same subjects and that (2) these same measures are moderately to strongly associated with each other. Furthermore, our addition of untreated controls allows for more robust conclusions regarding a selective treatment response between SMT responders and nonresponders. Specifically, the inclusion of nontreatment controls (+LBP/−SMT) showed that variation due to measurement or due to the LBP itself is insufficient to confound post-SMT changes in the responder group. Given that SMT responders showed significantly greater changes in biomechanical outcomes than nonresponders, we can say with increased confidence that changes in the SMT responders are more likely the result of SMT and less likely from treatment variability, measurement variability, or variability in the target condition. In other words, the biomechanical changes in SMT responders were clinically relevant. Importantly, the observation that self-reported measures of function are coherent with objective, physical measures in both the SMT responders and nonresponders implies that self-reports of spinal function and spinal biomechanics are related.
The observation that a specific group of participants responds to SMT is consistent with prior studies that show a change in stiffness and/or LM thickness ratio after SMT and, in particular, those studies that show a varied therapeutic benefit in subjects with nonspecific LBP.9,10,34 This suggests that SMT is not a broad-spectrum therapy but one that impacts factors within SMT responders that are not present in all persons with LBP. Given the observed correlations between our biomechanical outcome measures (spinal stiffness, LM thickness ratio, ADC), we would suggest that the differential response of participants with LBP to SMT is based on a biomechanical mechanism. Although the mechanism remains unknown, it is biologically plausible that decreases in spinal stiffness may permit increased disc diffusion and increased segmental motion enabling increased LM thickness ratios. The increased disc diffusion may also improve IVD health and yields favorable clinical outcomes.35 Although our data do not prove the existence of LBP subgroups, they do reinforce that LBP is a heterogeneous condition and that in the short term, SMT does not equally affect those who experience LBP.
As with all studies, this investigation has limitations that restrict its interpretation. First, ADC measures were taken only in participants with LBP. We assumed that the diffusion within the discs of asymptomatic participants would not change significantly given prior research.26 Importantly, we did obtain ADC values from +LBP/−SMT to control for the magnitude of ADC measurement variability over the time it would have taken to provide SMT in the +LBP/+SMT group. The measured ADC values were also comparable with prior studies.27,36 Second, SMT was not given to asymptomatic participants, which may have allowed us to further determine the differential impact of SMT (i.e., Do asymptomatic individuals show post-SMT decreased stiffness or are asymptomatic stiffness values already minimal?). Third, as the pain intensity and disability level of the +LBP/+SMT and +LBP/−SMT groups were relatively low, our results may not be generalized to individuals with severe LBP.
Our results demonstrate that those reporting post-SMT improvement in disability have coherent changes in multiple, objective measures of spinal biomechanics. This same coherence does not exist for asymptomatic controls or no-treatment symptomatic controls. Our data further support a differential effect of SMT on a specific constellation of biomechanical outcomes that are not responsive in all patients with LBP. This work provides a foundation from which to investigate the heterogeneous nature of LBP, the mechanisms underlying differential therapeutic response, and the biomechanical characteristics defining the responders at baseline.
- Responders to spinal manipulative therapy for low back pain are characterized by an immediate and sustainable decrease in spinal stiffness and an increase in lumbar multifidus muscle thickness ratio.
- In comparison, spinal manipulative therapy nonresponders and asymptomatic controls showed no change in spinal stiffness or lumbar multifidus contraction ratio.
- Immediate enhancement of lumbar disc diffusion was observed after the first spinal manipulative therapy in participants who reported improved back pain–related disability at 1 week.
The authors express their gratitude to Magnetic Imaging Consultants for providing advice and scan services. The authors are very grateful to the River Valley Health Clinic for providing professional SMT and clinical space. They also thank Mr. Karl Brandt and Ms. Carolyn Berendt for assisting the coding and decoding of various spinal stiffness, ultrasound imaging, and magnetic resonance imaging files.
Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appearing in the printed text are provided in the HTML and PDF version of this article on the journal's Web site (http://www.spinejournal.com)
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spinal manipulative therapy; low back pain; Oswestry Disability Index; spinal stiffness; multifidus contraction; disc diffusion; apparent diffusion coefficient; intervertebral discs; ultrasonography; diffusion-weighted imaging; indentation
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