The Mechanisms of Manual Therapy in the Treatment of Musculoskeletal Pain: A Comprehensive Model

Nevner det meste rundt behandling av muskel og skjelett problemer, både usikkerheter, manglende diagnostisk spesifisitet, dårlig forhold mellom forklaringsmodelle og realitet, og foreslår nevrosentriske forklaringsmodeller. Viser til at spesifikk behandling ikke har bedre effekt enn uspesifikk behandling. Og til at den mekaniske teknikken setter igang en kaskade av nevrologiske effekter som resulterer i en behandlingeffekt.


Prior studies suggest manual therapy (MT) as effective in the treatment of musculoskeletal pain; however, the mechanisms through which MT exerts its effects are not established. In this paper we present a comprehensive model to direct future studies in MT. This model provides visualization of potential individual mechanisms of MT that the current literature suggests as pertinent and provides a framework for the consideration of the potential interaction between these individual mechanisms. Specifically, this model suggests that a mechanical force from MT initiates a cascade of neurophysiological responses from the peripheral and central nervous system which are then responsible for the clinical outcomes. This model provides clear direction so that future studies may provide appropriate methodology to account for multiple potential pertinent mechanisms.

Mechanical Stimulus 

First, only transient biomechanical effects are supported by studies which quantify motion (Colloca et al., 2006;Gal et al., 1997;Coppieters & Butler, 2007;Coppieters & Alshami, 2007) but not a lasting positional change (Tullberg et al., 1998;Hsieh et al., 2002). Second, biomechanical assessment is not reliable. Palpation for position and movement faults has demonstrated poor reliability (Seffinger et al., 2004;Troyanovich et al., 1998) suggesting an inability to accurately determine a specific area requiring MT.  Third, MT techniques lack precision as nerve biased techniques are not specific to a single nerve (Kleinrensink et al., 2000) and joint biased technique forces are dissipated over a large area (Herzog et al., 2001;Ross et al., 2004).

Finally, studies have reported improvements in signs and symptoms away from the site of application such as treating cervical pain with MT directed to the thoracic spine (Cleland et al., 2005;Cleland et al., 2007) and lateral epicondylitis with MT directed to the cervical spine (Vicenzino et al., 1996).

Subsequently, we suggest, that as illustrated by the model, a mechanical force is necessary to initiate a chain of neurophysiological responses which produce the outcomes associated with MT. 

Neurophysiological Mechanism 

Studies have measured associated responses of hypoalgesia and sympathetic activity following MT to suggest a mechanism of action mediated by the periaquaductal gray (Wright, 1995) and lessening of temporal summation following MT to suggest a mechanism mediated by the dorsal horn of the spinal cord (George et al., 2006) The model makes use of directly measurable associated responses to imply specific neurophysiological mechanisms when direct observations are not possible. The model categorizes neurophysiological mechanisms as those likely originating from a peripheral mechanism, spinal cord mechanisms, and/or supraspinal mechanisms.

Peripheral mechanism 

Musculoskeletal injuries induce an inflammatory response in the periphery which initiates the healing process and influences pain processing. Inflammatory mediators and peripheral nociceptors interact in response to injury and MT may directly affect this process. For example, (Teodorczyk-Injeyan et al., 2006) observed a significant reduction of blood and serum level cytokines in individuals receiving joint biased MT which was not observed in those receiving sham MT or in a control group. Additionally, changes of blood levels of β-endorphin, anandamide, N-palmitoylethanolamide, serotonin, (Degenhardt et al., 2007) and endogenous cannabinoids (McPartland et al., 2005) have been observed following MT. Finally, soft tissue biased MT has been shown to alter acute inflammation in response to exercise (Smith et al., 1994) and substance P levels in individuals with fibromyalgia (Field et al., 2002). Collectively, these studies suggest a potential mechanism of action of MT on musculoskeletal pain mediated by the peripheral nervous system for which mechanistic studies may wish to account. 

Spinal mechanisms 

MT may exert an effect on the spinal cord. For example, MT has been suggested to act as a counter irritant to modulate pain (Boal & Gillette, 2004) and joint biased MT is speculated to “bombard the central nervous system with sensory input from the muscle proprioceptors (Pickar & Wheeler, 2001).”Subsequently, a spinal cord mediated mechanism of MT must be considered and is accounted for in the model. Direct evidence for such an effect comes from a study (Malisza et al., 2003b) in which joint biased MT was applied to the lower extremity of rats following capsaicin injection. A spinal cord response was quantified by functional MRI during light touch to the hind paw. A trend was noted towards decreased activation of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord following the MT. The model uses associated neuromuscular responses following MT to provide indirect evidence for a spinal cord mediated mechanism. For example, MT is associated with hypoalgesia (George et al., 2006;Mohammadian et al., 2004;Vicenzino et al., 2001), afferent discharge (Colloca et al., 2000;Colloca et al., 2003), motoneuron pool activity (Bulbulian et al., 2002;Dishman & Burke, 2003), and changes in muscle activity (Herzog et al., 1999;Symons et al., 2000) all of which may indirectly implicate a spinal cord mediated effect.

Supraspinal mechanisms 

Finally, the pain literature suggests the influence of specific supraspinal structures in response to pain. Structures such as the anterior cingular cortex (ACC), amygdala, periaqueductal gray (PAG), and rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM) are considered instrumental in the pain experience.(Peyron et al., 2000;Vogt et al., 1996;Derbyshire et al., 1997;Iadarola et al., 1998;Hsieh et al., 1995;Oshiro et al., 2007;Moulton et al., 2005;Staud et al., 2007;Bee & Dickenson, 2007;Guo et al., 2006). Subsequently, the model considers potential supraspinal mechanisms of MT. Direct support for a supraspinal mechanism of action of MT comes from (Malisza et al., 2003a) who applied joint biased MT to the lower extremity of rats following capsaicin injection. Functional MRI of the supraspinal region quantified the response of the hind paw to light touch following the injection. A trend was noted towards decreased activation of the supraspinal regions responsible for central pain processing. The model accounts for direct measures of supraspinal activity along with associated responses such as autonomic responses (Moulson & Watson, 2006;Sterling et al., 2001;Vicenzino et al., 1998) (Delaney et al., 2002;Zhang et al., 2006), and opiod responses (Vernon et al., 1986) (Kaada & Torsteinbo, 1989) to indirectly imply a supraspinal mechanism. Additionally, variables such as placebo, expectation, and psychosocial factors may be pertinent in the mechanisms of MT (Ernst, 2000;Kaptchuk, 2002). For example expectation for the effectiveness of MT is associated with functional outcomes (Kalauokalani et al., 2001) and a recent systematic review of the literature has noted that joint biased MT is associated with improved psychological outcomes (Williams et al., 2007). For this paper we categorize such factors as neurophysiological effects related to supraspinal descending inhibition due to associated changes in the opioid system (Sauro & Greenberg, 2005), dopamine production (Fuente-Fernandez et al., 2006), and central nervous system (Petrovic et al., 2002;Wager et al., 2004;Matre et al., 2006) which have been observed in studies unrelated to MT.

Figure 3 Pathway considering both a spinal cord and supraspinal mediated effect from Bialosky et al (2008)

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