Surface electromyographic reflex responses associated with mechanical force, manually assisted (MFMA) spinal manipulative therapy were analyzed in this prospective clinical investigation of 20 consecutive patients with low back pain.


To characterize and determine the magnitude of electromyographic reflex responses in human paraspinal muscles during high loading rate mechanical force, manually assisted spinal manipulative therapy of the thoracolumbar spine and sacroiliac joints.


Spinal manipulative therapy has been investigated for its effectiveness in the treatment of patients with low back pain, but its physiologic mechanisms are not well understood. Noteworthy is the fact that spinal manipulative therapy has been demonstrated to produce consistent reflex responses in the back musculature; however, no study has examined the extent of reflex responses in patients with low back pain.


Twenty patients (10 male and 10 female, mean age 43.0 years) underwent standard physical examination on presentation to an outpatient chiropractic clinic. After repeated isometric trunk extension strength tests, short duration (<5 msec), localized posteroanterior manipulative thrusts were delivered to the sacroiliac joints, and L5, L4, L2, T12, and T8 spinous processes and transverse processes. Surface, linear-enveloped electromyographic (sEMG) recordings were obtained from electrodes located bilaterally over the L5 and L3 erector spinae musculature. Force-time and sEMG time histories were recorded simultaneously to quantify the association between spinal manipulative therapy mechanical and electromyographic response. A total of 1600 sEMG recordings were analyzed from 20 spinal manipulative therapy treatments, and comparisons were made between segmental level, segmental contact point (spinous vs. transverse processes), and magnitude of the reflex response (peak-peak [p-p] ratio and relative mean sEMG). Positive sEMG responses were defined as >2.5 p-p baseline sEMG output (>3.5% relative mean sEMG output). SEMG threshold was further assessed for correlation of patient self-reported pain and disability.


Consistent, but relatively localized, reflex responses occurred in response to the localized, brief duration MFMA thrusts delivered to the thoracolumbar spine and SI joints. The time to peak tension (sEMG magnitude) ranged from 50 to 200 msec, and the reflex response times ranged from 2 to 4 msec, the latter consistent with intraspinal conduction times. Overall, the 20 treatments produced systematic and significantly different L5 and L3 sEMG responses, particularly for thrusts delivered to the lumbosacral spine. Thrusts applied over the transverse processes produced more positive sEMG responses (25.4%) in comparison with thrusts applied over the spinous processes (20.6%). Left side thrusts and right side thrusts over the transverse processes elicited positive contralateral L5 and L3 sEMG responses. When the data were examined across both treatment level and electrode site (L5 or L3, L or R), 95% of patients showed positive sEMG response to MFMA thrusts. Patients with frequent to constant low back pain symptoms tended to have a more marked sEMG response in comparison with patients with occasional to intermittent low back pain.


This is the first study demonstrating neuromuscular reflex responses associated with MFMA spinal manipulative therapy in patients with low back pain. Noteworthy was the finding that such mechanical stimulation of both the paraspinal musculature (transverse processes) and spinous processes produced consistent, generally localized sEMG responses. Identification of neuromuscular characteristics, together with a comprehensive assessment of patient clinical status, may provide for clarification of the significance of spinal manipulative therapy in eliciting putative conservative therapeutic benefits in patients with pain of musculoskeletal origin.


Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2001 May 15;26(10):1117-24. [PMID: 11413422]

Author information: Colloca CJ. Postdoctoral & Related Professional Education Department, Logan College of Chiropractic, St Louis, Missouri, USA.