Chiropractic spinal adjustments (specific line-of-drive manipulations) are quite effective for the management of spinal musculoskeletal complaints and injuries. This is not controversial. Studies documenting the clinical effectiveness of chiropractic and spinal manipulation for the management of spinal musculoskeletal complaints and injuries have appeared in the literature for more than half a century (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
Consequently, in this modern era of maximizing clinical outcomes, it is commonplace for spine pain clinical practice guidelines to include chiropractic and/or spinal manipulation (11, 12, 13, 14, 15).
A related concept to clinical effectiveness of chiropractic and spinal manipulation for the management of spinal musculoskeletal complaints and injuries is assessing the cost effectiveness of such chiropractic care. Here is presented a review of published studies assessing the cost effectiveness of chiropractic care for musculoskeletal complaints.
Preliminary Academic Theoretical Evidence
In 2012, Ronald Donelson, MD, and colleagues published a study in the journal Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation titled (16):
Is It Time to Rethink the Typical Course of Low Back Pain?
In this study the authors document that recurrent low back pain episodes were common and numerous, occurring in 73% of low back pain episodes. They note that these recurrences often worsened over time, often becoming severe and chronic. Importantly, they indicate that 84% of total medical costs for patients with LBP are related to recurrences.
In 2011, Manuel Cifuentes, MD, PhD, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled (17):
Health Maintenance Care in Work-Related Low Back Pain
and Its Association With Disability Recurrence
In this study the authors defined maintenance care as treatment given to patients after recovery from a low back pain episode, delivered in an effort to reduce episodes of recurrences. They noted that maintenance chiropractic care significantly reduced the incidence of low back pain recurrence.
If chiropractic maintenance care reduced incidences of low back pain recurrence, and if recurrence is responsible for the majority of low back pain treatment costs, it would suggest that chiropractic care is quite cost effective for the treatment of low back pain. The authors state:
Chiropractic patients had “less expensive medical services and shorter initial periods of disability than cases treated by other providers.”
Chiropractic patients had “fewer surgeries, used fewer opioids, and had lower costs for medical care than the other provider groups.”
These statements further support the cost effectiveness and cost savings associated with chiropractic care for low back pain.
Pertaining to the value of maintenance care delivered by chiropractors, a PubMed indexed article was published on the topic in 2011, titled (18):
A Theoretical Basis for Maintenance Spinal Manipulative Therapy
for the Chiropractic Profession
In this article, Dr. David Taylor presents an anatomical and physiological basis for maintenance chiropractic spinal manipulation. His conclusions are the benefits of such care are lost if not delivered between every 2-4 weeks.
Cost Assessment Evidence
In 2010, Richard Liliedahl, MD, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics titled (19):
Cost of Care for Common Back Pain Conditions Initiated with Chiropractic Doctor vs. Medical Doctor/Doctor of Osteopathy as First Physician
The primary aim of this study was to determine if there are differences in the cost of low back pain care when a patient is able to choose a course of treatment with a medical doctor (MD) versus a doctor of chiropractic (DC), given that his/her insurance provides equal access to both provider types. The authors identified 85,402 subjects who meet the diagnostic criteria for a low back pain claim. They chose low back pain as the focus of study because it is a condition that is prevalent, costly, and is treated by both medical doctors and chiropractors.
The authors note that back problems are one of the top 10 most costly conditions treated in the United States. There are hundreds of millions of patient visits to chiropractors yearly. Twenty percent of those reporting back or neck pain seek chiropractic care, and patients are highly satisfied with chiropractic care.
The authors “found statistically significant lower costs in episodes of care initiated with a DC as compared to an MD.” They state:
“Our results support a growing body of evidence that chiropractic treatment of low back pain is less expensive than traditional medical care.”
“We found that episode cost of care for LBP initiated with a DC is less expensive than care initiated through an MD.”
“Paid costs for episodes of care initiated with a DC were almost 40% less than episodes initiated with an MD.”
“Our results suggest that insurance companies that restrict access to chiropractic care for LBP may, inadvertently, be paying more for care than they would if they removed these restrictions.”
“Beneficiaries in our sampling frame had lower overall episode costs for treatment of low back pain if they initiated care with a DC, when compared to those who initiated care with an MD.”
In 2012, a study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled (20):
Value of Chiropractic Services at an On-Site Health Center
The authors noted that the direct costs in the United States for the treatment of back and neck pain are escalating. Back problems are the second most common cause of disability in the United States, accounting for tens of billions of dollars in lost wages.
The authors note that chiropractic patients have lower utilization of ancillary medical services, and that chiropractic care is less invasive and more conservative than alternative treatments. They state:
“Patients with chiropractic coverage seemed to be avoiding more surgeries, hospitalizations, and radiographic imaging procedures.”
Consequently, the authors acknowledge that chiropractic care has the potential to reduce the economic and clinical burden of musculoskeletal conditions and to reduce indirect costs, including absenteeism and productivity losses. They conclude:
“Compared with alternatives, including physician visits, hospitalizations, and surgery, chiropractic care is considered a cost-effective treatment.”
In 2013, Benjamin J. Keeney, PhD, and colleagues published a study in the journal Spine titled (21):
Early Predictors of Lumbar Spine Surgery after Occupational Back Injury:
Results from a Prospective Study of Workers in Washington State
This was a prospective population-based cohort study whose objective is to identify early predictors of lumbar spine surgery within 3 years after occupational back injury, noting:
“Back pain is the most costly and prevalent occupational health condition among the U.S. working population.”
The authors reference that the most costly aspect of treating occupational back pain is the cost of spinal surgery. They reasoned that if good clinical outcomes could be obtained without spinal surgery there would be substantial costs savings, stating:
“Reducing unnecessary spine surgeries is important for improving patient safety and outcomes and reducing surgery complications and health care costs.”
In this three-year study, approximately 43% of injured workers whose first provider was a surgeon underwent spinal surgery. In contrast, when the first provider consulted was a chiropractor, the surgery rate was only 1.5%. The reduced surgery rate with chiropractic was a stunning 78%. The authors state:
“42.7% of workers who first saw a surgeon had surgery, in contrast to only 1.5% of those who saw a chiropractor.” “There was a very strong association between surgery and first provider seen for the injury, even after adjustment for other important variables.” “It is possible that these findings indicate that “who you see is what you get.”
“In Washington State worker’s compensation, injured workers may choose their medical provider. Even after controlling for injury severity and other measures, workers with an initial visit for the injury to a surgeon had almost nine times the odds of receiving lumbar spine surgery compared to those seeing primary care providers, whereas workers whose first visit was to a chiropractor had significantly lower odds of surgery.”
These authors also indicate that previous studies have shown:
They suggest that it is wise to use a “gatekeeper” for patients who suffer occupational back injury. This article presents substantial reason for why such a gatekeeper should be a chiropractor. The reduction of back surgeries in those consulting chiropractors for back pain represents a substantial costs savings, and also the highest levels of back care satisfaction.
In 2015, a study was published in the journal BioMed Central (BMC) Health Services Research titled (22):
A Systematic Review Comparing the Costs of Chiropractic Care
to Other Interventions for Spine Pain in the United States
This is a comprehensive study designed to compare health care costs for patients with spine pain who received chiropractic care v. care from other healthcare providers. The search included studies published in English between 1993 and 2015. The search uncovered 1,276 citations and 25 eligible studies. This study was huge, with the number of members/episodes included in groups receiving chiropractic care ranging from 97 to 36,280.
The authors note that for those with spine pain, 61% seek care from a medical physician (MD or DO), 28% from a chiropractor, and 11 % from both a medical physician and a physical therapist. Chiropractors in the United States treat spine pain almost exclusively, with the most common indication for care being low back pain (68%), followed by neck pain (12%), and mid-back pain (6%). Only 3% of office visits to medical physicians are related to spine pain.
Chiropractors have more confidence in their ability to manage spine pain than medical physicians. Patients with spine pain report higher levels of satisfaction with chiropractic care than care from a medical physician.
The findings of this review were that 92% of the studies reported that health care costs were lower for members whose spine pain was managed by chiropractic care than by other providers, by a mean of 36%. The authors state:
“In general, the findings in this review suggest that health care costs may be lower when spine pain is managed with chiropractic care in the US, even if such differences are sometimes attributable to sociodemographics, clinical, or other factors rather than healthcare providers.”
“These findings echo that of a review published in 1993 that examined studies in which LBP was managed by spinal manipulation, chiropractic care, other interventions (e.g. physical modalities, medications, exercise) throughout the world (e.g. Australia, Canada, Egypt, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, United Kingdom, and US). Based on the favorable short-term clinical improvements and lower costs of care reported in those studies, the previous review concluded that health care costs could be reduced if a higher proportion of patients with spine pain received chiropractic care rather than other interventions, and recommended a greater integration of chiropractors into the publicly financed health care system.”
In 2016, a study was published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation titled (23):
Association Between the Type of First Healthcare Provider
and the Duration of Financial Compensation for Occupational Back Pain
The objective of this study was to compare the duration of financial compensation and the occurrence of a second episode of compensation for back pain among injured workers seen by three types of first healthcare providers (physicians, chiropractors, and physiotherapists). The study used a cohort of 5,511 injured workers who were followed for a period of 2 years.
The authors note that at any given point, the prevalence of back pain is about 9% of the population. The lifetime prevalence of back pain is about 85%. Back pain is the most common occupational injury in Canada and the United States. Back pain causes more years of life with disability than any of the other 291 conditions studied.
These authors found chiropractic care for back pain to be exceptionally cost effective, noting:
“Workers who first saw a chiropractor were less likely to become chronically work disabled.”
Over the first 149 days, the “workers who first sought care from a chiropractor had a significantly greater hazard of ending their compensation episode compared with the workers who first consulted a physician and those who first consulted a physiotherapist.”
“When compared with medical doctors, chiropractors were associated with shorter durations of compensation and physiotherapists with longer ones.”
“In accordance with our findings, workers who first sought chiropractic care were less likely to be work-disabled after 1 year compared with workers who first sought other types of medical care.”
“We found that the workers who sought chiropractic care experienced shorter durations of compensation.”
“Chiropractic patients experience the shortest duration of compensation, and physiotherapy patients experience the longest.”