Original Research

Cervical artery dissection related to chiropractic manipulation: One institution’s experience

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This study suggests that patients considering chiropractic cervical spine manipulation should be advised of the risks of potential arterial dissection and stroke.




PurposeThe purpose of this study was to determine the frequency of patients seen at a single institution who were diagnosed with a cervical vessel dissection related to chiropractic neck manipulation.

MethodsWe identified cases through a retrospective chart review of patients seen between April 2008 and March 2012 who had a diagnosis of cervical artery dissection following a recent chiropractic manipulation. Relevant imaging studies were reviewed by a board-certified neuroradiologist to confirm the findings of a cervical artery dissection and stroke. We conducted telephone interviews to ascertain the presence of residual symptoms in the affected patients.

ResultsOf the 141 patients with cervical artery dissection, 12 had documented chiropractic neck manipulation prior to the onset of the symptoms that led to medical presentation. The 12 patients had a total of 16 cervical artery dissections. All 12 patients developed symptoms of acute stroke. All strokes were confirmed with magnetic resonance imaging or computerized tomography. We obtained follow-up information on 9 patients, 8 of whom had residual symptoms and one of whom died as a result of his injury.

ConclusionsIn this case series, 12 patients with newly diagnosed cervical artery dissection(s) had recent chiropractic neck manipulation. Patients who are considering chiropractic cervical manipulation should be informed of the potential risk and be advised to seek immediate medical attention should they develop symptoms.

A prospective randomized controlled study published in 2012 showed chiropractic manipulation is beneficial in the treatment of neck pain compared with medical treatment, but it showed no significant difference between chiropractic manipulation and physical therapy exercises.1 Although chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine may be effective, it may also cause harm.

Cerebellar and spinal cord injuries related to cervical chiropractic manipulation were first reported in 1947.2 By 1974, there were 12 reported cases.3 Noninvasive imaging has since greatly improved the diagnosis of cervical artery dissection and of stroke,4 and cervical artery dissection is now recognized as pathogenic of strokes occurring in association with chiropractic manipulation.5

A prospective series published in 2011 reported that, over 4 years, 13 patients were treated at a single institution for cervical arterial dissection following chiropractic treatment.6 That so many patients might be seen for this condition in that time frame at a single institution suggests the risk for such injury may be greater than thought. To explore that possibility, we performed a 4-year retrospective review to determine the experience at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, which is affiliated with the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Peoria.


Data sources. After receiving approval by the local institutional review board, we obtained data from the electronic medical records of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Peoria, Ill., using Epic (Epic Systems Corporation, Verona, Wis.) and IDX (General Electric Corporation, Fairfield, Conn.) systems. The records were queried using ICD-9 codes 443.21 and 443.24 to identify patients from April 2008 through March 2012 who had primary or secondary diagnoses of vertebral artery dissection (VAD) or carotid artery dissection (CAD). We reviewed all records of VAD and CAD to identify those that may have been associated with chiropractic manipulation.

Data collection. We abstracted data from 12 patients’ charts. Two patients were unavailable for direct contact: one was involved in ongoing litigation, and one had died (although we were able to speak with his wife). We attempted telephone contact with the 10 remaining patients and reached 8.

Data included the symptoms leading to chiropractic manipulation, symptoms following manipulation, timing of onset of symptoms relative to chiropractic manipulation, identifying information for the treating chiropractor, and residual patient symptoms. We also recorded patients’ ages, sex, locations of dissection, and locations of stroke. All dissections and strokes had been diagnosed during the patient’s initial hospitalization.

A board-certified radiologist (JRD) with a Certificate of Added Qualification in Neuroradiology (American Board of Medical Specialties) reviewed all pertinent imaging to confirm all dissections and strokes.


The medical record query yielded 141 patients with VAD or CAD, 15 of whom had undergone chiropractic manipulation prior to their presentation. The temporal association between chiropractic manipulation and arterial dissection was equivocal for 3 patients. In 12 patients, there was a verifiable temporal association between chiropractic manipulation and the arterial dissection. Three of the 12 patients were men and 9 were women. Ages ranged from 22 to 46 years, with a mean of 35.3 years.

Demographics, original symptoms, and frequency of chiropractor use image

Acute or chronic neck pain was the most common reason for seeking chiropractic care (TABLE 1). Immediately upon performance of cervical manipulation, 10 of the 12 developed acute symptoms different than those that caused them to seek chiropractic care. Two patients developed symptoms 2 to 3 days post-manipulation. Neither of the 2 had a history of neck trauma within the preceding year. Ten of the 12 patients sought immediate medical attention. Two of the 12 patients sought care when their symptoms became more severe, ranging from 2 days to several weeks later (TABLE 2). The treating chiropractor was identified in 7 cases and was different in each of the 7 cases.

CASE 9: A 46-year-old woman with immediate onset of symptoms following chiropractic manipulation image

A total of 16 cervical artery dissections, 14 VAD and 2 CAD, were confirmed by computed tomography angiography (CTA), magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), or catheter angiography (FIGURE 1). All 12 patients had acute strokes confirmed by MRA or CTA, including 9 in the cerebellum (FIGURE 2), 4 in the cerebrum, 2 in the medulla, and one in the pons.

CASE 11: A 29-year-old woman who experienced delayed onset of symptoms following manipulation image

Long-term outcomes were determined for 9 patients (TABLE 2). One patient’s symptoms resolved. Three patients had dizziness, clumsiness, or balance problems; 3 had persistent headaches; 2 had bilateral visual field abnormalities; and one patient walked with a cane, was no longer driving a car, and was on disability. One patient died as a result of his injury. One of the 12 cases was previously described in a case report.7

Timing of events and outcomes following chiropractic care image

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