Association Between Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation and Cauda Equina Syndrome in Adults With Low Back Pain: Retrospective Cohort Study of US Academic Health Centers

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SOURCE:   PLoS One 2024 (Mar 11); 19 (3): e0299159
Robert J. Trager • Anthony N. Baumann • Jaime A. Perez
Jeffery A. Dusek • Romeo-Paolo T. Perfecto • Christine M. Goertz

Connor Whole Health,
University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center,
Cleveland, Ohio, United States of America.

Background:   Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a lumbosacral surgical emergency that has been associated with chiropractic spinal manipulation (CSM) in case reports. However, identifying if there is a potential causal effect is complicated by the heightened incidence of CES among those with low back pain (LBP). The study hypothesis was that there would be no increase in the risk of CES in adults with LBP following CSM compared to a propensity-matched cohort following physical therapy (PT) evaluation without spinal manipulation over a three-month follow-up period.

Methods:   A query of a United States network (TriNetX, Inc.) was conducted, searching health records of more than 107 million patients attending academic health centers, yielding data ranging from 20 years prior to the search date (July 30, 2023). Patients aged 18 or older with LBP were included, excluding those with pre-existing CES, incontinence, or serious pathology that may cause CES.

Patients were divided into two cohorts:

(1)   LBP patients receiving CSM or
(2)   LBP patients receiving PT evaluation without spinal manipulation.

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Propensity score matching controlled for confounding variables associated with CES.

Results:   67,220 patients per cohort (mean age 51 years) remained after propensity matching. CES incidence was 0.07% (95% confidence intervals [CI]: 0.05–0.09%) in the CSM cohort compared to 0.11% (95% CI: 0.09–0.14%) in the PT evaluation cohort, yielding a risk ratio and 95% CI of 0.60 (0.42–0.86; p = .0052). Both cohorts showed a higher rate of CES during the first two weeks of follow-up.

Conclusions:   These findings suggest that CSM is not a risk factor for CES. Considering prior epidemiologic evidence, patients with LBP may have an elevated risk of CES independent of treatment. These findings warrant further corroboration. In the meantime, clinicians should be vigilant to identify LBP patients with CES and promptly refer them for surgical evaluation.

From the FULL TEXT Article:


The cauda equina is a bundle of nerve roots arising from the spinal cord at the upper lumbar spine. [1, 2] Compression of these nerve roots, typically by a disc herniation [1, 3], can cause cauda equina syndrome (CES). Signs and symptoms of CES include one or more of the following

(1)   bladder/bowel dysfunction,
(2)   reduced saddle area sensation or
(3)   sexual dysfunction [4],

and potentially low back pain (LBP) or lower extremity symptoms. [4] CES with neurological deficits is a medical emergency and surgical intervention is recommended within 48 hours to prevent permanent damage. [5] While CES is rare among asymptomatic individuals (0.6 cases per 100,000 per year), it is more common among those with LBP, affecting 270 per 100,000 (0.27%) per year in secondary care settings. [6]

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