Gross, et al: Management of neck disorders
Conservative Management of Mechanical Neck
Disorders: A Systematic Review
ANITA R. GROSS, CHARLIE GOLDSMITH, JAN L. HOVING, TED HAINES, PAUL PELOSO, PETER AKER,
PASQUALINA SANTAGUIDA, CYNTHIA MYERS, and the Cervical Overview Group
ABSTRACT. Objective. To determine if conservative treatments (manual therapies, physical medicine methods, med-
ication, and patient education) relieved pain or improved function/disability, patient satisfaction, and
global perceived effect in adults with acute, subacute, and chronic mechanical neck disorders (MND)
by updating 11 systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCT).
Methods. Two independent authors selected studies, abstracted data, and assessed methodological qual-
ity from computerized databases. We calculated relative risks and standardized mean differences (SMD)
when possible. In the absence of heterogeneity, we calculated pooled effect sizes.
Results. We studied 88 unique RCT. The mean methodological quality scores were acceptable in 59%
of the trials. We noted strong evidence of benefit for maintained pain reduction [pooled SMD –0.85
(95% CI –1.20, –0.50)], improvement in function, and positive global perceived effect favoring exer-
cise plus mobilization/manipulation versus control for subacute/chronic MND. We found moderate evi-
dence of longterm benefit for improved function favoring direct neck strengthening and stretching for
chronic MND, and for high global perceived effect favoring vertigo exercises. We noted moderate evi-
dence of no benefit for botulinium-A injection [pooled SMD –0.39 (95% CI –01.25, 0.47)]. We found
many treatments demonstrating short-term effects.
Conclusion. Exercise combined with mobilization/manipulation, exercise alone, and intramuscular
lidocaine for chronic MND; intravenous glucocorticoid for acute whiplash associated disorders; and
low-level laser therapy demonstrated either intermediate or longterm benefits. Optimal dosage of effec-
tive techniques and prognostic indicators for responders to care should be explored in future research.
(J Rheumatol First Release Jan 15 2007)
Key Indexing Terms:
NECK WHIPLASH DEGENERATIVE
RADICULAR TREATMENTS SYSTEMATIC REVIEW
From the School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Clinical Epidemiology and
Biostatistics, and Occupational Health and Environmental Medicine,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; Coronel Institute of
Occupational Health, Academic Medical Center, Universiteit van
Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; and the Integrative Medicine
Program, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, Florida, USA.
Supported by a Problem-based Research Grant from Sunnybrook and
Women’s Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, Canada.
A.R. Gross, MSc, Associate Clinical Professor; C. Goldsmith, PhD,
Professor; T. Haines, MSc, Associate Professor; P. Santaguida, PhD,
Associate Professor, School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Clinical
Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and Occupational Health and
Environmental Medicine, McMaster University; J.L. Hoving, PhD, Senior
Research Fellow, Coronel Institute of Occupational Health, Academic
Medical Center, Universiteit van Amsterdam, and Department of
Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Australia;
P. Peloso, MD, Director, Product Benefit Risk Assessment and
Management, Amgen Inc.; P. Aker, MSc, Private Practice, Belleville, ON,
Canada; C. Myers, PhD, Director, Integrative Medicine Program, H. Lee
Moffitt Cancer Center.
The Cervical Overview Group: T. Kay, P. Kroeling, N. Graham,
B. Haraldsson, A.M. Eady, K. Trinh, J. Ezzo, G. Bronfort, A. Morien,
E. Wang, I. Cameron.
Address reprint requests to A.R. Gross, School of Rehabilitation Sciences,
McMaster University, 1400 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8N
3Z5, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com
Accepted for publication October 13, 2006.
Neck pain is still a major contributor to disability worldwide1-4,
with about 70% of the population experiencing an episode of
neck pain at some point in their lives1,5and 15% experiencing
chronic neck pain6. Chronic pain accounts for $150 to $215
billion US each year in economic loss (i.e., lost workdays,
therapy, disability)7,8, yet very little is known about the effec-
tiveness of many of the available treatments. In this report, we
update our previous systematic reviews from the Cervical
Overview Group on conservative management for mechanical
MATERIALS AND METHODS
The medical and alternative-medicine literature was searched from 1997 to
September 2004 with no language restrictions using a sensitive search strate-
gy20. It included computerized bibliographic databases: Cochrane Register of
Controlled Trials (Central), Medline, Embase, Manual Alternative and
Natural Therapy, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature,
Index to Chiropractic Literature, an acupuncture database in China (root to
September 2005). Medical Subject Headings key words included terms relat-
ed to anatomic, disorder/syndrome, treatment, and methodology. Figure 1
depicts the review retrieval flow from selection to metaanalyses. Two inde-
pendent reviewers conducted study selection using pilot-tested forms (qw
kappa 0.82, SD 0.05)21.
Type of study. Published or unpublished (quasi-) randomized controlled trials.
Type of participant. Adults with acute (< 30 days), subacute (30–90 days), or
chronic (> 90 days) neck disorders categorized as: (1) mechanical neck dis-
orders (MND), including whiplash associated disorders (WAD I/II)22,23,
myofascial neck pain, and degenerative changes or OA24; (2) neck disorder
with headache (NDH)25-27; and (3) neck disorder with radicular findings
(NDR), including WAD III22,23.
Type of intervention. Medication, medical injections18, acupuncture19, elec-
trotherapy17, exercise16, low-level laser therapy11, orthosis, thermal agents12,
traction13, massage15, mobilization, manipulation10, and patient education14.
The control group consisted of a placebo, wait-list/no treatment control;
active treatment control (e.g., exercise and ultrasound vs ultrasound); or inac-
tive treatment control (e.g., sham transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).
Other comparisons were excluded.
Type of outcome. Pain, disability/function including work related measures,
patient satisfaction, and global perceived effect (GPE)28. Followup periods
were defined as post-treatment (≤ 1 day), short-term (> 1 day to < 3 months),
intermediate term (≥ 3 months to < 1 year), and longterm (≥ 1 year).
Two independent reviewers conducted data abstraction using pilot-tested
forms. We calculated standard mean difference (SMD), relative risk (RR),
number needed to treat, absolute benefit, and treatment advantage (Table 1,
Figures 2 and 3). In the absence of heterogeneity (p ≥ 0.05), data were pooled
statistically (random effects model) when we judged the studies to be clini-
cally and statistically similar by Q-test (Figure 4). We categorized our find-
ings using levels of evidence (Table 2)29,30.
Methodological quality. We had at least 2 authors independently assess each
selected study for methodological quality, based on the validated Jadad crite-
ria31(maximum score 5, high/acceptable score ≥ 3) and the van Tulder crite-
ria30(maximum score 11, high/acceptable score ≥ 6; Table 2). The mean
scores were 2.9 (SD 1.2) for Jadad, et al31or 6.0 (SD 2.3) for the van Tulder,
et al30criteria lists. Using a cutoff value of 50% (6/11) on the van Tulder cri-
teria list, 59% of the included studies had “acceptable” methodological qual-
ity. Table 3 shows methodological quality scores of all studies and Figure 5
the main methodological limitations of the studies by treatment category.
Sensitivity analysis for methodological quality using the Jadad scale (high
score ≥ 3) upheld our primary analysis. Metaregression was not possible.
We detailed trial findings by “level of evidence” and “treat-
ment category” in the later sections. Table 1 details the mag-
nitude of the effect in terms of effect size (SMD or RR), num-
ber needed to treat, and treatment advantage; Table 4 gives a
summary of the level of evidence by treatment category.
Evidence of benefit
We found that multimodal approaches including stretching/
strengthening exercise and mobilization/manipulation for sub-
acute/chronic MND, NDR, and NDH reduced pain (Figure
432-36), improved function, and resulted in favorable GPE in
the long term.
Exercise. We noted 7 trials that supported various methods of
direct neck strengthening and stretching exercises for chronic
NDH35and chronic MND32,37-39(Figure 440,41) in the inter-
mediate or long term for multiple outcomes. However,
strengthening and stretching of only the shoulder region plus
general conditioning38,42did not alter pain in the short or long
term, but did assist in improving function in the short term for
chronic MND. One study found an effect favoring active
range of motion exercises for acute pain reduction of WAD in
the short term43,44. Other studies favored cervical propriocep-
tive training and eye-fixation exercises to achieve pain reduc-
tion, improved function and GPE in the short term, and GPE
in the long term for cases of chronic MND45,46(Figure 4). The
effect for pain was not maintained in the long term.
Medicine. We found 2 controlled trials favoring specific med-
icines in the intermediate or long term, as follows: intravenous
glucocorticoid for pain reduction and reduced sick leave in
cases of acute WAD47, and epidural injections for pain reduc-
tion and improved function in cases of chronic neck disorder
Low-level laser therapy. Using sensitivity analysis by disorder
subtype, we found evidence to support the use of low-level
laser therapy (830 or 904 nm) for pain reduction and func-
tional improvement in the intermediate term for acute/suba-
cute and chronic MND/degenerative changes49-52. Although
the frequency and duration of treatment were similar, other
aspects of dosage (radiant power, energy density, emission
frequency, duration of disorder) were diverse and precluded a
Electrotherapy. We found a short course of low-frequency
pulsed electromagnetic field was helpful to palliate pain for
acute WAD I and II, acute MND, or chronic MND with asso-
ciated degenerative changes. We noted an immediate posttreat-
ment effect; this was not maintained into the short term53-57.
Intermittent traction. For pain, we determined that there was
moderate evidence of benefit favoring intermittent traction
compared to control or placebo for chronic MND, NDR,
degenerative changes58,59. These were short-term results.
Acupuncture. Acupuncture was found to be effective for pain
relief compared to inactive treatments either immediately
posttreatment or in short-term followup for chronic MND60-62
(Figure 4) and NDR63. However, we noted that the evidence
suggests no benefit for pain relief in the intermediate and long
term and no functional improvements in the short, intermedi-
ate, or long term61,62. Additionally, one high-quality study
assessed the traditional Chinese medicine procedure of dry-
needling to trigger points64and another low-quality trial on
local “standard points”65did not relieve pain in the short term.
We found limited evidence that suggested there may be bene-
fit in the use of repetitive magnetic stimulation66, traditional
Chinese massage67, orthopedic pillow68, and intramuscular
injection of local anesthetic (lidocaine)69.
Evidence of no benefit
We found evidence that varied between moderate and limited,
for both intermediate and longterm use, suggesting that home
exercise, hot packs, electromechanical stimulation, ultra-
2 The Journal of Rheumatology 2007; 34:3
sound, and combination of manipulation/mobilization/modal-
ities do not relieve chronic pain or improve function in MND.
Additionally, we found that short-term evidence suggests the
following treatments do not aid pain reduction: medicines
notably botulinum-A70-75(Figure 4), morphine added to an
epidural injection, manipulation alone, various massage tech-
niques, laser for myofascial pain, infrared light, static traction,
spray and stretch76,77(Figure 4), electrotherapies (diadynam-
ic current, galvanic current, iontophoresis, magnetic neck-
lace), ultra-reiz, oral splint, neck school, and advice [to rest
for acute WAD pain relief was inferior to active treatments in
the short term43,44,78(Figure 4); advice to activate; or on pain
and stress coping skills].
We have recorded numerous trials with conflicting/unclear
evidence in Table 5.
We found that minor, transient, and reversible side effects
consisting of increased symptoms were occasionally reported.
Avalid estimate of clinically significant, uncommon, and rare
adverse events cannot be made from these trials. Adverse
effects of longterm steroid therapy81and manipulation82have
been well described.
For treatment of subacute and chronic MND or NDH, our
review found evidence favoring a multimodal strategy (exer-
cise and mobilization/manipulation); exercise alone; intra-
muscular lidocaine injection; and low level laser therapy (for
OA) for pain, function, and GPE in the short and long term.
Acupuncture, low-frequency pulse electromagnetic field,
repetitive magnetic stimulation, cervical orthopedic pillow,
and traditional Chinese massage are favored for either imme-
diate or short-term pain management. For acute WAD, we
found that studies of intravenous glucocorticoid show reduc-
tion of work disability at 1 year, while stretching exercises and
low-frequency pulse electromagnetic field reduce pain. For
chronic NDR, we determined that epidural methylpred-
nisolone and lidocaine improved function and pain in the short
and long term, while intermittent traction improved pain in the
short term. Other commonly used interventions were either
not studied, were unclear, or were not compatible with any
evidence of benefit.
Interpretation of the magnitude of these treatment effects
can benefit communication with our patients, third-party pay-
ers, and policy-makers in terms of treatment advantage,
expected absolute benefit, and number needed to treat. For
example, as shown in Table 1, a multimodal management
approach (exercise, mobilization, and manipulation) is com-
patible with a 28% to 70% treatment advantage over a control,
and with a longterm absolute benefit in pain reduction of 25
mm on a numeric rating scale (0-100 mm) from baseline for 1
in 2 to 5 patients with subacute or chronic MND/NDH.
Similarly, intramuscular lidocaine injection for chronic
myofascial neck pain is associated with a 45% treatment
advantage, 40 mm absolute benefit, and a number needed to
treat of 3. Table 1 provides corresponding data for treatment
types shown to be beneficial.
Despite a large increase in the number of trials since our
1996 review, the advances in our understanding of the effec-
tiveness of treatments are modest. No substantive change in
methodological quality has occurred since the 1980s. The
main flaws were in concealment of allocation; blinding of
patients, caregivers, and outcome assessors; avoidance of
cointervention; and compliance. There continues to be ample
room for improving the methodological quality of trials, as
proposed in the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials
To date, few trials on neck disorders have looked at costs84.
However, given the lack of large treatment differences
between interventions, economic evaluations are becoming
increasingly important and should be performed in random-
ized clinical trials85.
What are the most important unanswered questions with
regard to treating mechanical neck disorders? Information on
commonly used pain medications (nonsteroidal antiinflamma-
tory drugs, acetaminophen, opioids) is needed. Glucocorticoid
studies suggest reduction of work disability at 1 year; if this
can be confirmed, it has important public health implications
for acute whiplash injury. We need to understand the most
effective treatment techniques, combinations, or approaches,
and the optimal dosages. This is especially true for different
forms of exercise therapy and manual therapy. Are there prog-
nostic indicators for those who will or will not respond to
care? Increased insight into compliance with treatments like
exercise will help address application barriers. These are the
challenging questions requiring focused attention.
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Questionnaire 0–36 scale converted to 0–100 scale; NDI: Neck Disability Index 0–50 scale converted to 0–100 scale; NPD: Neck
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14 The Journal of Rheumatology 2007; 34:3
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Table 3. Continued.