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Bilateral and multiple cavitation sounds during upper cervical thrust manipulation

James Dunning12*, Firas Mourad3, Marco Barbero4, Diego Leoni4, Corrado Cescon4 and Raymond Butts5

Author affiliations

1 Alabama Physical Therapy & Acupuncture, Montgomery, AL, USA

2 Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA

3 Sportlife Physiotherapy, Montichiari, Italy

4 Department of Health Sciences, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), Manno, Switzerland

5 University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2013, 14:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-14-24

Published: 15 January 2013



The popping produced during high-velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA) thrust manipulation is a common sound; however to our knowledge, no study has previously investigated the location of cavitation sounds during manipulation of the upper cervical spine. The primary purpose was to determine which side of the spine cavitates during C1-2 rotatory HVLA thrust manipulation. Secondary aims were to calculate the average number of pops, the duration of upper cervical thrust manipulation, and the duration of a single cavitation.


Nineteen asymptomatic participants received two upper cervical thrust manipulations targeting the right and left C1-2 articulation, respectively. Skin mounted microphones were secured bilaterally over the transverse process of C1, and sound wave signals were recorded. Identification of the side, duration, and number of popping sounds were determined by simultaneous analysis of spectrograms with audio feedback using custom software developed in Matlab.


Bilateral popping sounds were detected in 34 (91.9%) of 37 manipulations while unilateral popping sounds were detected in just 3 (8.1%) manipulations; that is, cavitation was significantly (P < 0.001) more likely to occur bilaterally than unilaterally. Of the 132 total cavitations, 72 occurred ipsilateral and 60 occurred contralateral to the targeted C1-2 articulation. In other words, cavitation was no more likely to occur on the ipsilateral than the contralateral side (P = 0.294). The mean number of pops per C1-2 rotatory HVLA thrust manipulation was 3.57 (95% CI: 3.19, 3.94) and the mean number of pops per subject following both right and left C1-2 thrust manipulations was 6.95 (95% CI: 6.11, 7.79). The mean duration of a single audible pop was 5.66 ms (95% CI: 5.36, 5.96) and the mean duration of a single manipulation was 96.95 ms (95% CI: 57.20, 136.71).


Cavitation was significantly more likely to occur bilaterally than unilaterally during upper cervical HVLA thrust manipulation. Most subjects produced 3–4 pops during a single rotatory HVLA thrust manipulation targeting the right or left C1-2 articulation; therefore, practitioners of spinal manipulative therapy should expect multiple popping sounds when performing upper cervical thrust manipulation to the atlanto-axial joint. Furthermore, the traditional manual therapy approach of targeting a single ipsilateral or contralateral facet joint in the upper cervical spine may not be realistic.

Cavitation; Popping sound; High velocity thrust manipulation; Upper cervical