Steroid Shots for Back Pain Don't Work
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Back Surgery: Too Many, Too Costly, Too Ineffective.
By J.C. Smith, MA, DC
33 Indeed, spine surgery has become the cash cow in the medical world and will only grow larger unless sensibility prevails over profiteering.
Deyo found that the mean hospital costs alone for surgical decompression and complex fusions ranged from $23,724 for the former to $80,888 for the latter.35 When combined with surgical costs, medications, MRIs, rehab, and disability, every spine surgery case approaches $100,000 or more. The direct costs are astronomical and may reach as high as $169,000 for a lumbar fusion, and for a cervical fusion as high as $112,480.36
Research suggests that of the 500,000-plus disk surgeries performed annually, as many as 90 percent are unnecessary and ineffective.37 This is unsustainable, and yet growing at incredible rates. Deyo noted, "It seems implausible that the number of patients with the most complex spinal pathology increased 15-fold in just six years," and he mentioned one strong motivation included "financial incentives involving both surgeons and hospitals."38
42 According to the editors of The Back Letter, a newsletter from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., "This form of surgery in workers' compensation subjects appears to be a gamble at best."
The New York Times that the spine profession is ignoring the call for restraint on drugs, shots and back surgery. "People say, 'I'm not going to put up with it,' and we in the medical profession have turned to ever more aggressive medication, narcotic medication, and more invasive surgery."43
The Back Letter agreed with his frustration with the medical approach:45-46
The world of spinal medicine, unfortunately, is producing patients with failed back surgery syndrome at an alarming rate … There is growing frustration over the lack of progress in the surgical treatment of degenerative disc disease. Despite a steady stream of technological innovations over the past 15 years - from pedical screws to fusion cages to artificial discs - there is little evidence that patient outcomes have improved … Many would like to see an entirely new research effort in this area, to see whether degenerative disc disease and/or discogenic pain are actually diagnosable and treatable conditions. (Emphasis added)
"The rate of back surgery in the United States was at least 40% higher than any other country and was more than five-times those in England and Scotland. Back surgery rates increased almost linearly with the per capita supply of orthopedic and neurosurgeons in that country."
The recent growth in "pain management" clinics featuring epidural steroid injections (ESI) has received troubling criticism from medical experts like Robert J. Barth, a neuropsychologist, who believes these ESI treatments "reliably fail, the treatments seems to lead to a progressive worsening of the claimant's presentation, the ineffective treatment never ends, and the original treating doctors refer the claimants into pain management simple as a means of escaping from or 'dumping' a problematic patient."49
50 Nonetheless, it is among the fastest growing segments in medicine today.
American Pain Society Bulletin by Steven H. Sanders, PhD, who revealed nerve blocks for back pain are not supported by scientific research: "From the current review, we must conclude injections and nerve blocks produce a large amount of money with very little science to support their application."52
The Back Letter. "The proven benefits of opioids do not extend to the long-term treatment of chronic pain … Editorials and commentaries in medical journals are starting to pose the question, 'How could this have happened?'"53
Chiropractic: The Best Buy
Not only can most medical spine treatments be avoided, but they also must be reigned in if America hopes to reduce its health-care spending crisis. This problem has become more apparent after research found that the Fortune 500 companies spent over $500 million a year on avoidable back surgeries for their workers and lost as much as $1.5 billion in indirect costs associated with these procedures in the form of missed work and lost productivity, according to a two-year study by Consumer's Medical Resource (CMR).56
A recent comparative study of back pain treatments by Antonio P. Legorreta, MD, MPH, et al., "found cost savings relating to chiropractic treatment of common complaints such as neck and back pain. Focusing on low back pain diagnoses that were selected specifically for comparability between medical and chiropractic practice, our analysis found that patients with chiropractic coverage had significantly lower rates of use of resource-intensive technologies, such as x-ray examinations, MR image, and surgery, and lower use of more expensive patient care settings, such as inpatient care. This is reflected in the significantly lower cost, at both the episode level and the patient level, of providing care for back pain."58
Not only are these spine surgeries very expensive and in many cases unnecessary; the latest research has shown that chiropractic care is more effective and less expensive. However, the medical profession has ignored this call for restraint and in many cases, continues its boycott of chiropractic care despite the evidence. Indeed, it appears to be a case of "don't confuse us with the facts."
The truth is now emerging. There is now broad agreement internationally that surgery should not generally be considered until there has been a trial of conservative nonsurgical care.83-85
Pran Manga conducted two studies in the 1990s and noted, "There should be a shift in policy now to encourage the utilization of chiropractic services for the management of low back pain, given the impressive body of evidence on the effectiveness and comparative cost-effectiveness of these services, and on the high levels of patient satisfaction."86 As well, an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine published jointly by the American College of Physicians and the American Society of Internal Medicine (1998) noted that "spinal manipulation is the treatment of choice":
87 ... Perhaps most significantly, the guidelines state that unlike nonsurgical interventions, spinal manipulation offers both pain relief and functional improvement. One might conclude that for acute low back pain not caused by fracture, tumor, infection, or the cauda equina syndrome, spinal manipulation is the treatment of choice."88
Treatment of Choice
More spine experts are emerging from the medical closet to express their support for chiropractors, although most remain cautious with the fear of reprisal from their surgical peers who profit greatly from spine surgery.
William Lauerman, MD, chief of spine surgery, professor of orthopedic surgery at Georgetown University Hospital, has stated: "I'm an orthopedic spine surgeon, so I treat all sorts of back problems, and I'm a big believer in chiropractic."89
Richard Deyo, MD, MPH, has mentioned chiropractic as a solution: "Chiropractic is the most common choice, and evidence accumulates that spinal manipulation may indeed be an effective pain remedy for patients with back problems."90
Gordon Waddell, MD, also has suggested chiropractic care as a solution: "There is now considerable evidence that manipulation can be an effective method of providing symptomatic relief for some patients with low back pain."91
Jo Jordan, PhD, wrote that spinal manipulation may be the "lone ray of light" for back pain treatment.92
The Back Letter editorial staff also noticed the stubbornness of physicians to implement the new guidelines for low back pain, which includes the use of spinal manipulation as a first route of treatment before surgery.93
Although most MDs and many in the public remain convinced that a disc problem requires surgery, most guidelines now recommend nonsurgical care before surgery. The North American Spine Society (NASS), the same organization that attacked the AHCPR findings in 1994, has now published online a Public Education Series that includes "Spinal Fusion." Remarkably, this explanation proved to be very accurate, including the opinion that "[f]usion under these conditions is usually viewed as a last resort and should be considered only after other conservative (nonsurgical) measures have failed."94
The admission by NASS that fusion should be a last resort is a huge warning that has been unheard by the public. More surprisingly, NASS again admitted that spinal manipulation should be considered before surgery in the October 2010 edition of The Spine Journal:
"Several RCTs (random controlled trials) have been conducted to assess the efficacy of SMT (spinal manipulative therapy) for acute LBP (low back pain) using various methods. Results from most studies suggest that 5 to 10 sessions of SMT administered over 2 to 4 weeks achieve equivalent or superior improvement in pain and function when compared with other commonly used interventions, such as physical modalities, medication, education, or exercise, for short, intermediate, and long-term follow-up. Spine care clinicians should discuss the role of SMT as a treatment option for patients with acute LBP who do not find adequate symptomatic relief with self-care and education alone."95
Indeed, it is past time for every physician to follow this advice and stop prescribing pain pills, muscle relaxers, epidural steroid injections and MRI scans that lead to unnecessary spine surgeries. It is time for all primary care MDs to refer patients to chiropractors for their hands-on care before any drugs, shots or surgery is suggested. It is past time for physicians to follow the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, and the current medical practice for back pain is doing great harm to many patients.
Dr. Rick McMichael, president of the American Chiropractic Association, recently spoke on this important issue with regard to reducing costs for health care:
"America cannot expect to significantly change its health care outcomes and the costs of health care unless we are willing to make some significant changes in how we deliver health care services. We must reduce the excessive use of pain meds and unnecessary surgeries. Positioning doctors of chiropractic as first-contact, portal-of-entry, primary care providers for a larger segment of the nation's patient population holds great promise as one very important change that could significantly impact health care outcomes and reduce health care costs.
"We must press forward for full implementation of Section 2706 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to stop the discrimination against DCs and other licensed health care providers. Full implementation of this new law will change our health care system dramatically, offer patients a real choice of health care and provider type, improve patient outcomes and satisfaction levels, and reduce overall health care costs. This change is long past due!"96
Resolving Back Pain Without Surgery: Get the Message Out
Chiropractors, once the forbidden fruit of the medical world, today have become the fiscal darlings in the medical world who can reduce the huge expense as well as save thousands of patients from unnecessary spine surgery. Of course, the medical profession has no interest in seeing this evidence-based approach cut into its billion-dollar spine surgery business, especially by chiropractors.
The AHCPR battle with NASS on Capitol Hill was evidence of the medical resistance to evidence-based research. Indeed, American medicine is renowned for its intransigence considering it takes 17 years for a new method to be incorporated into the mainstream while it takes 44 years for an ineffective method to be removed.97
Indeed, this begs the question: Will it take 44 years before the tsunami of back surgeries ends and people finally learn that chiropractic care is the preferred choice of treatment for the majority of back pain cases?
It is our duty to bring this message to the public. The facts are clear that drugs, shots and spine surgery have not stopped the rising tide in the tsunami of back pain, and reliance upon these treatments may actually be worsening the problem; indeed, medical spine care today is a shot in the dark with suspect treatments, unreliable outcomes and at great expense.
On the other hand, there are ethical orthopedists who are well-aware of the misfortune of back surgery. Jens Ivar Brox, MD, lead investigator of the Norway Spine Study, reported that he and his colleagues "no longer perform spinal fusion specifically for 'degenerative disc disease' because they do not regard it as a clearly diagnosable entity."98
Dr. Brox admitted some of the orthopaedic surgeons in his department have recurrent back pain and disc degeneration, but these surgeons refuse to have fusion surgery or recommend fusion surgery for their family members. "So the question is: Why should we recommend these procedures for our patients?" Finally, an honest surgeon speaks.
Every American spine surgeon should ask themselves the same question: will they be so quick to do surgery on their own family members (or have it done on oneself) as they do on their patients?
If this evidence-based health care reform movement seriously wants to lower costs and improve outcomes in the epidemic of back pain, the chiropractic profession stands as fiscal and health care conservatives to help solve this huge issue. Of course, this back pain issue has not discussed other ways chiropractors can help, such as with wellness care, neurogenic illnesses, pediatric, geriatric, sport injuries or the many issues that fall under our scope of practice - all important issues the public needs to learn.
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