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Headache pain is one of the most prevalent reasons for doctor office visits. The majority of people experience them at some point in their life and they can affect anyone, regardless of age, race and gender. The International Headache Society, or IHS, categorizes headaches as primary, when they are not caused by another injury and/or condition, or secondary, when there is an underlying cause behind them. From migraines to cluster headaches and tension headaches, people who suffer from constant head pain may find it difficult to participate in their everyday activities. Many healthcare professionals treat headache pain, however, chiropractic care has become a popular alternative treatment option for a variety of health issues. The purpose of the following article is to demonstrate evidence-based guidelines for the chiropractic treatment of adults with headache.
Table of Contents
Dr. Alex Jimenez’s Insight
Headache, or head pain, including migraine and other types of headaches, is one of the most common types of pain reported among the general population. These may occur on one or both sides of the head, can be isolated to a specific location or they may radiate across the head from one point. While headache symptoms can vary depending on the type of head pain as well as due to the source of the health issue, headaches are considered to be a general complaint regardless of their severity and form. Headache, or head pain, may occur as a result of spinal misalignment, or subluxation, along the length of the spine. Through the use of spinal adjustments and manual manipulations, chiropractic care can safely and effectively realign the spine, reducing stress and pressure on the surrounding structures of the spine, to ultimately help improve migraine headache pain symptoms as well as overall health and wellness.
Headache is a common experience in adults. Recurring headaches negatively impact family life, social activity, and work capacity.[1,2] Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, migraine alone is 19th among all causes of years lived with disability. Headache is third among reasons for seeking chiropractic care in North America.
Accurate diagnosis is key to management and treatment, and a wide range of headache types are described in the International Classification of Headache Disorders 2 (International Headache Society [IHS]). The categories are intended for clinical as well as research use. The most common headaches, tension-type and migraine, are considered primary headaches that are episodic or chronic in nature. Episodic migraine or tension-type headaches occur fewer than 15 days per month, whereas chronic headaches occur more than 15 days per month for at least 3 (migraine) or 6 months (tension-type headache). Secondary headaches are attributed to underlying clinical problems in the head or neck that may also be episodic or chronic. Cervicogenic headaches are secondary headaches commonly treated by chiropractors and involve pain referred from a source in the neck and perceived in 1 or more regions of the head. The IHS recognizes cervicogenic headache as a distinct disorder, and evidence that headache can be attributed to a neck disorder or lesion based on history and clinical features (history of neck trauma, mechanical exacerbation of pain, reduced cervical range of motion, and focal neck tenderness, excluding myofascial pain alone) is relevant to diagnosis but is not without controversy in the literature.[4,5] When myofascial pain alone is the cause, the patient should be managed as having tension-type headaches.
Treatment modalities typically used by chiropractors to care for patients with headaches include spinal manipulation, mobilization, device-assisted spinal manipulation, education about modifiable lifestyle factors, physical therapy modalities, heat/ice, massage, advanced soft tissue therapies such as trigger point therapy, and strengthening and stretching exercises. There is a growing expectation for health professions, including chiropractic, to adopt and use research-based knowledge, taking sufficient account of the quality of available research evidence to inform clinical practice. As a result, the purpose of the Canadian Chiropractic Association (CCA) and the Canadian Federation of Chiropractic Regulatory and Educational Accrediting Boards (Federation) Clinical Practice Guidelines Project is to develop guidelines for practice based on available evidence. The purpose of this manuscript is to provide evidence-informed practice recommendations for the chiropractic treatment of headache in adults.
The Guidelines Development Committee (GDC) planned for and adapted systematic processes for literature searching, screening, review, analysis, and interpretation. Methods are consistent with criteria proposed by the “Appraisal of Guidelines Research and Evaluation” collaboration (http://www.agreecollaboration.org). This guideline is a supportive tool for practitioners. It is not intended as a standard of care. The guideline links available published evidence to clinical practice and is only 1 component of an evidence-informed approach to patient care.
Systematic search and evaluation of the treatment literature were conducted using methods recommended by The Cochrane Collaboration Back Review Group and Oxman and Guyatt. The search strategy was developed in MEDLINE by exploring MeSH terms related to chiropractic and specific interventions and later modified for other databases. The literature search strategy was intentionally broad. Chiropractic treatment was defined as including the most common therapies used by practitioners and was not restricted to treatment modalities delivered only by chiropractors. A wide net was cast to include treatments that may be administered in chiropractic care as well as those that could also be delivered in the context of care by other health care professionals in a specific research study (Appendix A). Spinal manipulation was defined as a high-velocity low-amplitude thrust delivered to the spine. Excluded therapies included invasive analgesic or neurostimulation procedures, pharmacotherapy, injections of botulinum toxin, cognitive or behavioral therapies, and acupuncture.
Literature searches were completed from April to May 2006, updated in 2007 (phase 1), and updated again in August 2009 (phase 2). Databases searched included MEDLINE; EMBASE; Allied and Complementary Medicine; the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature; Manual, Alternative, and Natural Therapy Index System; Alt HealthWatch; Index to Chiropractic Literature; and the Cochrane Library (Appendix A). Searches included articles published in English or with English abstracts. The search strategy was limited to adults (≥18 years); although research studies with subject inclusion criteria encompassing a broad range of ages, such as adults and adolescents, were retrieved using the search strategy. Reference lists provided in systematic reviews (SRs) were also reviewed by the GDC to minimize relevant articles from being missed.
Search results were screened electronically, and multi-stage screening was applied (Appendix B): stage 1A (title), 1B (abstract); stage 2A (full text), 2B (full text-methodology, relevance); and stage 3 (full text-final GDC screening as clinical content experts). Duplicate citations were removed, and relevant articles were retrieved as electronic and/or hard copies for detailed analysis. Different assessors, using the same criteria, completed the literature screens in 2007 and 2009 due to the time span between searches.
Only controlled clinical trials (CCTs); randomized, controlled trials (RCTs); and systematic reviews (SRs) were selected as the evidence base for this guideline consistent with current standards for interpreting clinical findings. The GDC did not rate observational studies, case series, or case reports because of their uncontrolled nature and probable low methodological quality vs CCTs. This approach is consistent with updated methods for SRs published by the Cochrane Back Review Group. If multiple SRs were published by the same authors on a given topic, only the most recent publication was counted and used for evidence synthesis. Systematic reviews of SRs were also excluded to avoid double counting of research results.
Quality ratings of CCTs or RCTs included 11 criteria answered by “yes (score 1)” or “no (score 0)/do not know (score 0)” (Table 1). The GDC documented 2 additional criteria of interest: (1) researchers’ use of IHS diagnostic criteria for subject enrollment and (2) evaluation of side effects (Table 1, columns L and M). Use of IHS criteria was relevant to this Clinical Practice Guideline (CPG) process to confirm diagnostic specificity within and across research studies. Studies were excluded if IHS diagnostic criteria were not applied by the researchers for subject inclusion into a study (Appendix C); and if before 2004, before cervicogenic headache was included in the IHS classification, the diagnostic criteria of the Cervicogenic Headache International Study Group were not used. Side effects were reviewed as a proxy for potential risk(s) with treatment. No weighting factor(s) was applied to individual criteria, and possible quality ratings ranged from 0 to 11. Both blinding of subjects and care providers were rated in the research articles by the GDC, since these items are listed in the quality rating tool. The GDC’s methods did not adapt or alter the rating tool. The rationale for this approach was that certain treatment modalities (eg, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation [TENS], ultrasound) and trial designs may achieve patient and/or practitioner blinding. The GDC did not limit the evaluation of these benchmarks of quality if indeed they were reported in clinical studies for the treatment of headache disorders. The GDC also considered it outside their scope of expertise to modify, without validation, a widely used rating tool used to assess the clinical literature. New research tools for the analysis and rating of the manual therapy literature, however, are urgently needed and are noted as an area for future research in the discussion section below.
Literature assessors were project contributors separate from the GDC and were unblinded as to study authors, institutions, and source journals. Three members of the GDC (MD, RR, and LS) corroborated quality rating methods by completing quality assessments on a random subset of 10 articles.[11-20] A high level of agreement was confirmed across quality ratings. Complete agreement on all items was achieved for 5 studies: in 10 of 11 items for 4 studies and 8 of 11 items for the 1 remaining study. All discrepancies were easily resolved through discussion and consensus by the GDC (Table 1). Due to heterogeneity of research methods across trials, no meta-analysis or statistical pooling of trial results was done. Trials scoring more than half of the total possible rating (ie, ≥6) were considered high quality. Trials scoring 0 through 5 were considered low quality. Studies with major methodological flaws or investigating specialized treatment techniques were excluded (eg, treatment not considered relevant by the GDC for the chiropractic care of patients with headache; Appendix Table 3).
Quality rating of SRs included 9 criteria answered by yes (score 1) or no (score 0)/do not know (score 0) and a qualitative response for item J “no flaws,” “minor flaws,” or “major flaws” (Table 2). Possible ratings ranged from 0 to 9. The determination of overall scientific quality of SRs with major flaws, minor flaws, or no flaws, as listed in column J (Table 2), was based on the literature raters’ answers to the previous 9 items. The following parameters were used to derive the overall scientific quality of a SR: if the no/do not know response was used, an SR was likely to have minor flaws at best. However, if “No” was used on items B, D, F, or H, the review was likely to have major flaws. Systematic reviews scoring more than half of the total possible rating (ie, ≥5) with no or minor flaws were rated as high quality. Systematic reviews scoring 4 or less and/or with major flaws were excluded.
Reviews were defined as systematic if they included an explicit and repeatable method for searching and analyzing the literature and if inclusion and exclusion criteria for studies were described. Methods, inclusion criteria, methods for rating study quality, characteristics of included studies, methods for synthesizing data, and results were evaluated. Raters achieved complete agreement for all rating items for 7 SRs[22-28] and for 7 of 9 items for the 2 additional SRs.[29,30] The discrepancies were deemed minor and easily resolved through GDC review and consensus (Table 2).
The GDC interpreted the evidence relevant to chiropractic treatment of headache patients. A detailed summary of the relevant articles will be posted to the CCA/Federation Clinical Practice Guidelines Project web site.
Randomized, controlled trials and their findings were appraised to inform treatment recommendations. To assign an overall strength of evidence (strong, moderate, limited, conflicting, or no evidence), the GDC considered the number, quality, and consistency of research results (Table 3). Strong evidence was considered only when multiple high-quality RCTs corroborated the findings of other researchers in other settings. Only high-quality SRs were appraised in relation to the body of evidence and to inform treatment recommendations. The GDC considered treatment modalities to have proven benefit(s) when supported by a minimum of moderate level of evidence.
Recommendations for practice were developed in collaborative working group meetings.
From the literature searches, initially 6206 citations were identified. Twenty-one articles met final criteria for inclusion and were considered in developing practice recommendations (16 CCTs/RCTs[11-20,31-36] and 5 SRs[24-27,29]). Quality ratings of the included articles are provided in Tables 1 and 2. Appendix Table 3 lists articles excluded in final screening by the GDC and reason(s) for their exclusion. Absence of subject and practitioner blinding and unsatisfactory descriptions of cointerventions were commonly identified methodological limitations of the controlled trials. Headache types evaluated in these trials included migraine (Table 4), tension-type headache (Table 5), and cervicogenic headache (Table 6). Consequently, only these headache types are represented by the evidence and practice recommendations in this CPG. Evidence summaries of SRs are provided in Table 7.
Practitioners select treatment modalities in conjunction with all available clinical information for a given patient. Of the 16 CCTs/RCTS[11-20,31-36] included in the body of evidence for this CPG, only 6 studies[11,12,15,20,32,36] adequately assessed or discussed patient side effects or safety parameters (Table 1, column M). Overall, reported risks were low. Three of the trials reported safety information for spinal manipulation.[11,12,20] Boline et al reported that 4.3% of subjects experienced neck stiffness after initial spinal manipulation that disappeared for all cases after the first 2 weeks of treatment. Soreness or increase in headaches after spinal manipulation (n = 2) were reasons for treatment discontinuation cited by Tuchin et al. No side effects were experienced by any subjects studied by Bove et al using spinal manipulation for the treatment of episodic tension-type headache. Treatment trials to evaluate efficacy outcomes may not enroll adequate numbers of subjects to assess the incidence of rare adverse events. Other research methods are required to develop a full understanding of the balance between benefits and risks.
Spinal manipulation and other manual therapies commonly used in chiropractic have been studied in several CCTs that are heterogeneous in subject enrollment, design, and overall quality. Patient and headache types systematically represented in the evidence base are migraine, tension-type headaches, and cervicogenic headache. The primary health status outcomes reported are typically headache frequency, intensity, duration, and quality-of-life measures. The evidence is no greater than a moderate level at this time.
The evidence supports the use of spinal manipulation for the chiropractic management of patients with migraine or cervicogenic headaches but not tension-type headaches. For migraine, multidisciplinary care using weekly 45-minute massage therapy and multimodal care (exercise, relaxation, and stress and nutritional counseling) may also be effective. Alternatively, joint mobilization or deep neck flexor exercises are recommended for improving symptoms of cervicogenic headache. There appears to be no consistently additive benefit of combining joint mobilization and deep neck flexor exercises for patients with cervicogenic headache. Moderate evidence support the use of low-load craniocervical mobilization for longer term management of tension-type headaches.
Shortcomings for this guideline include the quantity and quality of supporting evidence found during the searches. No recent adequately controlled high-quality research studies with reproducible clinical findings have been published for the chiropractic care of headache patients. Studies are needed to further our understanding of specific manual therapies in isolation or in well-controlled combinations for the treatment of migraine, tension-type headache, cervicogenic headache, or other headache types presenting to clinicians (eg, cluster, posttraumatic head- ache). Another shortcoming of this literature synthesis is the reliance on published research studies with small sample sizes (Tables 4-6), short-term treatment paradigms, and follow-up periods. Well-designed clinical trials with sufficient numbers of subjects, longer term treatments, and follow-up periods need to be funded to advance chiropractic care, and spinal manipulation in particular, for the management of patients with headache disorders. As with any literature review and clinical practice guideline, foundational information and published literature are evolving. Studies that may have informed this work may have been published after the conclusion of this study.[37-39]
The GDC consensus is that there is a need for further chiropractic studies with patients with headache disorders.
Other research methods are required to develop a full understanding of the balance between benefits and risks. This CPG does not provide a review of all chiropractic treatments. Any omissions reflect gaps in the clinical literature. The type, frequency, dosage, and duration of treatment(s) should be based on guideline recommendations, clinical experience, and knowledge of the patient until higher levels of evidence are available.
There is a baseline of evidence to support chiropractic care, including spinal manipulation, for the management of migraine and cervicogenic headaches. The type, frequency, dosage, and duration of treatment(s) should be based on guideline recommendations, clinical experience, and knowledge of the patient. Evidence for the use of spinal manipulation as an isolated intervention for patients with tension-type headache remains equivocal. More research is needed.
Practice guidelines link the best available evidence to good clinical practice and are only 1 component of an evidence-informed approach to providing good care. This guideline is intended to be a resource for the delivery of chiropractic care for patients with headache. It is a “living document” and subject to revision with the emergence of new data. Furthermore, it is not a substitute for a practitioner’s clinical experience and expertise. This document is not intended to serve as a standard of care. Rather, the guideline attests to the commitment of the profession to advance evidence-based practice through engaging a knowledge exchange and transfer process to support the movement of research knowledge into practice.
The authors thank the following for input on this guideline: Ron Brady, DC; Grayden Bridge, DC; H James Duncan; Wanda Lee MacPhee, DC; Keith Thomson, DC, ND; Dean Wright, DC; and Peter Waite (Members of the Clinical Practice Guidelines Task Force). The authors thank the following for assistance with the Phase I literature search assessment: Simon Dagenais, DC, PhD; and Thor Eglinton, MSc, RN. The authors thank the following for assistance with the Phase II additional literature search and evidence rating: Seema Bhatt, PhD; Mary-Doug Wright, MLS. The authors thank Karin Sorra, PhD for assistance with literature searches, evidence rating, and editorial support.
Funding was provided by the CCA, Canadian Chiropractic Protective Association, and provincial chiropractic contributions from all provinces except British Columbia. This work was sponsored by The CCA and the Federation. No conflicts of interest were reported for this study.
In conclusion, headache is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. Although many healthcare professionals can treat headaches, chiropractic care is a well-known alternative treatment option frequently used to treat a variety of health issues, including several types of headaches. According to the article above, evidence suggests that chiropractic care, including spinal adjustments and manual manipulations, can improve headache and migraine. Information referenced from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The scope of our information is limited to chiropractic as well as to spinal injuries and conditions. To discuss the subject matter, please feel free to ask Dr. Jimenez or contact us at 915-850-0900 .
Curated by Dr. Alex Jimenez
According to statistics, approximately 80% of people will experience symptoms of back pain at least once throughout their lifetimes. Back pain is a common complaint which can result due to a variety of injuries and/or conditions. Often times, the natural degeneration of the spine with age can cause back pain. Herniated discs occur when the soft, gel-like center of an intervertebral disc pushes through a tear in its surrounding, outer ring of cartilage, compressing and irritating the nerve roots. Disc herniations most commonly occur along the lower back, or lumbar spine, but they may also occur along the cervical spine, or neck. The impingement of the nerves found in the low back due to injury and/or an aggravated condition can lead to symptoms of sciatica.
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