Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine if cerebral hemodynamic responses to pain change following thoracic spine thrust manipulation in healthy individuals

Cheryl Sparks*, Joshua A. Cleland, James M. Elliott, Michael Zagardo, Wen Ching Liu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


STUDY DESIGN: Case series. OBJECTIVES: To use blood oxygenation level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine if supraspinal activation in response to noxious mechanical stimuli varies pre-and post-thrust manipulation to the thoracic spine. BACKGROUND: Recent studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of thoracic thrust manipulation in reducing pain and improving function in some individuals with neck and shoulder pain. However, the mechanisms by which manipulation exerts such effects remain largely unexplained. The use of fMRI in the animal model has revealed a decrease in cortical activity in response to noxious stimuli following manual joint mobilization. Supraspinal mediation contributing to hypoalgesia in humans may be triggered following spinal manipulation. METHODS: Ten healthy volunteers (5 women, 5 men) between the ages of 23 and 48 years (mean, 31.2 years) were recruited. Subjects underwent fMRI scanning while receiving noxious stimuli applied to the cuticle of the index finger at a rate of 1 Hz for periods of 15 seconds, alternating with periods of 15 seconds without stimuli, for a total duration of 5 minutes. Subjects then received a supine thrust manipulation directed to the midthoracic spine and were immediately returned to the scanner for reimaging with a second delivery of noxious stimuli. An 11-point numeric pain rating scale was administered immediately after the application of noxious stimuli, premanipulation and postmanipulation. Blood oxygenation level-dependent fMRI recorded the cerebral hemodynamic response to the painful stimuli premanipulation and postmanipulation. RESULTS: The data indicated a significant reduction in subjects' perception of pain (P<.01), as well as a reduction in cerebral blood flow as measured by the blood oxygenation level-dependent response following manipulation to areas associated with the pain matrix (P<.05). There was a significant relationship between reduced activation in the insular cortex and decreased subjective pain ratings on the numeric pain rating scale (r = 0.59, P<.05). CONCLUSION: This study provides preliminary evidence that suggests that supraspinal mechanisms may be associated with thoracic thrust manipulation and hypoalgesia. However, because the study lacked a control group, the results do not allow for the discernment of the causative effects of manipulation, which may also be related to changes in levels of subjects' fear, anxiety, or expectation of successful outcomes with manipulation. Future investigations should strive to elicit more conclusive findings in the form of randomized clinical trials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)340-348
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2013


  • FMRI
  • Manipulation
  • Neuroscience
  • Pain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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