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Low Back And Leg Pain

Spinal Manipulation for Lumbar Intervertebral Disc Syndrome with Radiculopathy

For thirty years (since 1985), it has been acknowledged that spinal manipulation is successful in the treatment of the majority of patients with low back pain, and that “there is a scientific basis for the treatment of back pain by manipulation.” (1) However, the consensus pertaining to the use of spinal manipulation for the treatment of intervertebral disc syndrome with radiculopathy is less investigated. Consequently, there is the potential for an opinion that spinal manipulation may be inappropriate for patients with low back intervertebral disc syndrome and symptoms/signs of radiculopathy. This publication will review a number of articles on this topic, spanning six decades (1954-2015).


In 1954, RH Ramsey, MD, published a study titled (2):

Conservative Treatment of Intervertebral Disk Lesions

Dr. Ramsey’s study appeared in the Instructional Course Lectures of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Dr. Ramsey states:

“The conservative management of lumbar disk lesions should be given careful consideration because no patient should be considered for surgical treatment without first having failed to respond to an adequate program of conservative treatment.”

“If after a fair trial of conservative treatment, the pain and disability continue and the symptoms are of sufficient gravity to warrant surgery, the patient is advised that he should be operated upon and the offending disk lesion should be removed.”

Dr. Ramsey advocated a number of conservative treatments for this syndrome, including spinal manipulation. Pertaining to manipulation, Dr. Ramsey makes the following comments:

“From what is known about the pathology of lumbar disk lesions, it would seem that the ideal form of conservative treatment would theoretically be a manipulative closed reduction of the displaced disk material.”

“Many forms of manipulation are carried out by orthopaedic surgeons and by cultists and this form of treatment will probably always be a controversial one.”

“We limit the use of manipulation almost entirely to those patients who do not seem to be responding well to non-manipulative conservative treatment and who are anxious to have something else done short of operative intervention.”

“The patient lies on his side on the edge of the table facing the surgeon and the leg that is up is allowed to drop over the side of the table, tending to swing the up-side of the pelvis forward. The arm that is up is allowed to drop back behind the patient, tending to pull the shoulder back. The surgeon then places one hand on the patient’s shoulder and his opposite forearm on the patient’s iliac crest. Simultaneously, the shoulder is thrust suddenly back, rotating the torso in one direction while the iliac crest is thrust down and forward, rotating the pelvis in the opposite direction. This gives the lumbar spine a twist that frequently causes an audible and palpable crunch. This procedure is then repeated with the patient on his other side. The patient is then turned on his back and his hips and knees are hyperflexed sufficiently to forcibly flex the lumbar spine which tends to open up the disk spaces posteriorly.”

“The patient should be cautioned beforehand that forceful manipulation may possibly make his symptoms worse although many patients will get marked relief.”

Dr. Ramsey notes that the manipulation is “forceful” and associated with an “audible and palpable crunch.” Although he cautions that the manipulation may make the patient worse, “many patients will get marked relief.”


Fifteen years later (in 1969), physicians JA Mathews and DAH Yates from the Department of Physical Medicine, St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, published a study titled (3):

Reduction of Lumbar Disc Prolapse by Manipulation

This study appeared in the September 20, 1969 issue of the British Medical Journal. These authors evaluated a number of patients that presented with an acute onset of low back and buttock pain that did not respond to rest. Diagnostic epidurography showed a clinically relevant small disc protrusion, along with antalgia and positive lumbar spine nerve stretch tests. These patients were then treated with long-lever rotation manipulations of the lumbar spine, using the shoulder and iliac crest as levers. These lumbar spine manipulations were clearly accompanied with a thrust maneuver. The manipulations were repeated until abnormal symptoms and signs had disappeared. Following the manipulations there was resolution of signs, symptoms, antalgia, and reduction in the size of the protrusions. Drs. Mathews and Yates state:

“The frequent accompaniment of acute onset low back pain by spinal deformity suggests a mechanical factor, and the accompanying abnormality of straight-leg raise or femoral stretch test suggests that the lesion impinges on the spinal dura matter of the dural nerve sheaths.”

“The lumbar spine was rotated away from the painful side to the limit of its range, the buttock or thigh of the painful side being used as a lever; a firm additional thrust was made in the same direction. This manoeuver was repeated until abnormal symptoms and signs had disappeared, progress being assessed by repeated examination.”

“Rotation manipulations apply torsion stress throughout the lumbar spine. If the posterior longitudinal ligament and the annulus fibrosus are intact, some of this torsion force would tend to exert a centripetal force, reducing prolapsed or bulging disc material.”

“The results of this study suggest that small disc protrusions were present in patients presenting with lumbago and that the protrusions were diminished in size when their symptoms had been relieved by manipulations.”

These authors conclude: “it seems likely that the reduction effect [of the disc protrusion] is due to the manipulating thrust used.”


In another study published in 1969, BC Edwards compared the effectiveness of heat/massage/exercise to spinal manipulation in the treatment of 184 patients that were grouped according to the presentation of back and leg pain, as follows (4):



Acceptable Outcome

Central Low Back Pain Only



spinal manipulation


Pain Radiation to Buttock



spinal manipulation


Pain Radiation Down Thigh to Knee



spinal manipulation


Pain Radiation down Leg to Foot



spinal manipulation


This study by Edwards was published in the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy.

This study by Edwards was reviewed by Augustus A. White, MD, and Manohar M. Panjabi, PhD, in their 1990 book, Clinical Biomechanics of the Spine (5). Drs. White and Panjabi make the following points pertaining to the Edwards article: