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Causes of complications from cervical spine manipulation


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Structural and chiropractic

Aust J Physiother.2001;47(4):255-66.


T Mann, K M Refshauge


Cervical manipulation occasionally causes serious vertebrobasilar complications. The usual cause is vertebral artery dissection, however in some cases there has been no obvious arterial injury. The present paper reviews the mechanisms by which complications occur, particularly when the applied force is trivial or there is no injury to the vertebral arteries, and the factors that increase risk of complications. In addition, implications are drawn for use of the recently revised Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) guidelines. In the absence of vertebral artery rupture, complications are proposed to arise from vasospasm, haemostasis, endothelial injury or turbulent flow. These mechanisms have a sound scientific basis but have yet to be demonstrated as specifically causing vertebrobasilar complications. The most important risk factors for vertebrobasilar complications appear to be prior trauma to the vertebral arteries and symptoms of vertebrobasilar ischaemia from previous manipulation. There is weak evidence that hypoplasia of the vertebral arteries also increases the risk of complications. Neither general vascular factors nor pre-existing degenerative conditions of the cervical spine increase risk of vertebrobasilar complications. The procedures described in the APA guidelines test adequacy of total cerebral perfusion during cervical movements rather than patency of the vertebral arteries or their susceptibility to injury. The guidelines may therefore indicate potential for surviving a complication from manipulation. They may also identify patients at risk of complications from minor trauma. It is recommended that the procedures described in the APA guidelines be applied prior to every manipulation, and that manipulation be avoided in the presence of any signs of vertebrobasilar insufficiency.

Publication Date: 

2001 Nov



Mann, T., Refshauge, MK. (2001) 'Causes of complications from cervical spine manipulation', Aust J Physiother.2001;47(4):255-66.

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