Exploring the Efficacy of Manual Therapy
on Hip Osteoarthritis

Today’s post is a re-publication of an article written by John Snyder, DPT, CSCS that discusses the efficacy of manual therapy on patients with hip osteoarthritis.  He reviews multiple studies that have shown substantial gains for patients on manual therapy and concludes that it bodes well for the long-term effectiveness of the combination of manual therapy and exercise in the treatment of hip OA.

In fact, manual therapy and therapeutic exercises provides many patients who are living with hip osteoarthritis – and not yet candidates for THR – a significant alternative to narcotic painkillers for pain relief.  Manual therapy also directly addresses the increasing tightness of the joint capsule and loss of ROM that patients experience as the osteoarthritis progresses.  While it cannot “cure” the hip osteoarthritis, manual therapy can relieve the pain, improve mobility, ROM and overall quality of life for patients who are not yet or will never be candidates for THR surgery.


According to the Clinical Guidelines for Hip Osteoarthritis (OA) published in 2009, the prevalence of hip OA is between 0.4% and 27%. The most common complaint of individuals diagnosed with this debilitating disorder is hip and/or groin pain. Additionally, there is a concomitant decrease in the availability of ROM at the involved hip, which is typically in a capsular pattern (IR > ABD > Flexion). Knowing this information, what can we, as therapists, do for these patients?

The Clinical Guidelines determined that the use of manual therapy has ‘B’ Level Evidence to support its efficacy, which was actually the same level of support that flexibility, strength, and endurance exercises received. In 2005, Hoeksma et al performed a single blind, RCT comparing the effect of manual therapy versus exercise in patients who were diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the hip based on the American College of Rheumatology’s clinical criteria. The manual therapy group received aggressive manual stretching of muscles determined to be tight, long-axis distraction of the involved hip, and traction manipulation in each limited position. Whereas the exercise group received a treatment protocol addressing diminished muscular strength, limited ROM, pain, walking ability, and were provided a HEP.

Graph showing the efficacy of manual therapyAt five weeks, the success rate of the manual therapy group was 81% for the primary outcome measure (6-point likert scale ranging from “much worse” to “complete recovery”), while the exercise group only achieved a success rate of 50%. Additionally, change in the Harris Hip Score, walking speed, pain at rest, pain walking, mean complaint, flexion-extension ROM, ER-IR ROM all favored the manual therapy group. Please take into consideration that the manual therapy group received NO exercise therapy and there were still substantial gains achieved, gains that exceeded those of the exercise group. Also, the effects of the manual therapy treatment lasted for 6 months, which shows the potential long-term benefit of these interventions.

Harris Hip Scan results demonstrating the efficacy of manual therapy

In clinical practice, it almost always makes sense to combine these manual therapy techniques with therapeutic exercise interventions. Smith et al completed a case series looking at the outcomes of a combined manual therapy/exercise treatment approach to patients with OA of the hip. The primary author and his colleagues imployed both thrust and non-thrust mobilizations of the hip depending on the findings of the evaluation and the degree of capsular restriction. All mobilizations/manipulations were performed in the direction of restriction followed by immediate reassessment of PROM and joint mobility to determine changes occurring after administration of the interventions. In addition to the manual techniques, individualized exercise programs were completed by the patients, which included a HEP.

Data on the efficacy of manual therapyAt the conclusion of treatment, all 7 patients included in the case series demonstrated substantial improvements and could no longer be classified as having osteoarthritis per the ACR’s clinical classification. The median improvement in total hip ROM was 82° (range, 70°-86°), the median improvement in pain on the Numeric Pain Rating Scale was 5 points (range, 2-7 points), and the median improvement in disability on the Harris Hip Score was 25 points (range, 15-38 points). Unfortunately, there was not a formal follow-up, thus long-term effects could not be determined. However, the primary author was able contact 5 of the 7 patients who gave their subjective report of their symptoms. Patient 1 reported no change in symptoms since D/C, patients 5-7 reported not needing further treatment at 6 months, and patient 4 continued to seek intermittent treatment. So, this does bode well for the long-term effectiveness of the combination of manual therapy and exercise in the treatment of hip OA.

These techniques have been shown to be effective, but what do they actually do? According to a cadaveric study performed by Harding et al, accessory glide of the femoral head on the acetabulum in the anterior-posterior direction does occur and is dependent on force production. Increased force leads to a subsequent increase in the excursion of the femoral head. They found a mean displacement of 0.57 mm at 89N of force and 1.52 mm at 356N of force. An earlier study published by Arvidsson et al determined that it was necessary to apply a force of at least 400N in order to impart joint separation (0.8-3.0 mm) during the long-axis distraction technique. For comparison, 400N is equal to roughly 90 lbs or 41 kg of pressure. These studies show the ability of a physical therapist to provide forces significant enough to potentially stretch the tissues at and surrounding the hip joint, which should in turn cause a decrease in capsular restriction and an increase in ROM. An additional benefit of providing this manual care is the increase in force production demonstrated by studies published by Makofsky et al and Yerys et al. Both studies performed grade IV mobilizations which resulted in significant increases in peak torque of the hip abductors and gluteus maximus, respectively. The authors of these studies suggest that grade IV mobilization decreases the inhibitory input on the hip musculature. However, at this point, the mechanism behind these findings are purely speculative or theoretical.

Now that we have discussed some of the evidence behind the use of hip mobilizations, let’s take a look at a few common (and effective) techniques…

Long Axis Distraction


  • 1. General mobilization of joint
  • 2. May be initially used to decrease joint pain, decrease muscle spasm, and increase capsular elasticity

Continue reading about manual therapy techniques and view video clips on some of these techniques, including Lateral Distraction, Anterior Glide of Femur and Posterior Glide of Femur.