Spinal Manipulation in Physical Therapist Professional Degree Education: A Model for Teaching and Integration Into Clinical Practice

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Abstract

Spinal manipulation for low back complaints is an intervention supported by randomized clinical trials and its use recommended by clinical practice guidelines. Physical therapists in this country and internationally have used thrust spinal manipulation at much lower-than-expected rates, despite evidence supporting its efficacy for the treatment of acute low back pain (LBP). The purpose of this clinical commentary is to describe a physical therapist professional degree curriculum in thrust spinal manipulation and outline a method of monitoring ongoing student performance during the clinical education experience. Increased emphasis on evidence-based decision making and on the psychomotor skills of thrust spinal manipulation was introduced into a physical therapist professional degree curriculum. As part of ongoing student performance monitoring, physical therapy students on their first full-time (8-week) clinical education experience, collected practice pattern and outcome data on individuals with low back complaints. Eight of 18 first-year students were in outpatient musculoskeletal clinical settings and managed 61 individuals with low back complaints. Patients were seen for an average (±SD) of 6.2 ± 4.0 visits. Upon initial visit the student therapists employed spinal manipulation at a rate of 36.2% and spinal mobilization at 58.6%. At the final visit, utilization of manipulation and mobilization decreased (13% and 37.8%, respectively), while the utilization of exercise interventions increased, with 75% of patients receiving some form of lumbar stabilization training. Physical therapist students used thrust spinal manipulation at rates that are more consistent with clinical practice guidelines and substantially higher then previously reported by practicing physical therapists. Education within an evidence-based framework is thought to contribute to practice behaviors and outcomes that are more consistent with best practice guidelines.

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