OBJECTIVE: Specific neck exercises (SNE) targeting deep cervical flexors and extensors are commonly used for the treatment of nonspecific neck pain (NSNP). However, whether SNE are more effective than alternative exercise interventions (AEI) remains unclear. Furthermore, it has been postulated that SNE may be most effective when they are tailored and targeted to patients with evidence of motor control dysfunction, yet this notion also remains unproven. The objectives of this study were to compare the effectiveness of SNE with that of AEI for reducing pain and disability in people with NSNP and to assess whether the effectiveness of SNE is increased when the exercises are tailored and provided to patients with evidence of motor control dysfunction.
METHODS: For this systematic review with meta-analysis, Medline, Web of Science, Scopus, and Physiotherapy Evidence Database were searched. Eligibility criteria included randomized controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness of SNE against that of AEI in people with NSNP. Meta-analysis included subgroup analyses to determine the effect of exercise tailoring and participant selection criteria on the effectiveness of SNE.
RESULTS: Twelve studies were included. Meta-analysis revealed greater effectiveness of SNE in the short to medium term for reducing pain (pooled standardized mean difference [SMD] = -0.41; 95% CI = -0.76 to -0.06; P = .02) and disability (pooled SMD = -0.41; 95% CI = -0.78 to -0.04; P = .03) but no differences in the long term for pain (pooled SMD = -1.30; 95% CI = -3.35 to 0.75; P = .21) and disability (pooled SMD = -1.81; 95% CI = -4.29 to 0.67; P = .15), although evidence was limited for the latter. The effectiveness of SNE was not superior in studies that included only participants with motor control dysfunction or when exercises were tailored to each participant. Overall, the studies were of low quality. Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation revealed low certainty, serious risk of bias, and inconsistency of findings for short- to medium-term effects and very low certainty, serious risk of bias, and very serious inconsistency for long-term effects.
CONCLUSION: The preferential use of SNE may be recommended to achieve better short- to medium-term outcomes, although the low quality of evidence affects the certainty of these findings. Currently used strategies for selecting patients and tailoring SNE are not supported by the evidence and therefore cannot be recommended for clinical practice.
IMPACT: SNE are more effective than AEI for reducing pain and disability in patients with NSNP in the short to medium term, but overall evidence is of low quality, affecting the certainty of the findings. Tests of muscle dysfunction (mostly the craniocervical flexion test) currently used in studies to select patients and tailor SNE do not result in greater effectiveness of these exercises.
LAY SUMMARY: Evidence suggests SNE are more effective than other forms of exercise, although evidence is overall of low quality. Use of the craniocervical flexion test in isolation to select participants and/or tailor SNE cannot be recommended.
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- Exercise: Motor Performance
- Neck Pain
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation