failed surgery posts Archives

A common link between pain and allergies

Do you have widespread pain? Do you also have allergy symptoms like itching, hives, or wheezing? Did you know that allergy symptoms and bodily pain are both symptoms of a common condition?

If any of these questions resonate with you, you could have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), a condition that causes both pain and allergy symptoms. MCAS is a common condition that may impact up to 17% of the population.

If you have never heard of MCAS, that’s because MCAS is a condition that is only gaining widespread recognition in the past decade or so through a recent boom in research. There are many doctors who are not familiar with MCAS, but as research grows on the condition, doctors are becoming aware of how and when to diagnose it.

If you have allergies and pain symptoms, you may have never thought about how these two seemingly unrelated symptoms might be a sign of a single condition. If you have MCAS, or think you might, we encourage you to learn more about a clinical trial opportunity we are holding at our clinic.




Spinal Surgery for Lumbar Stenosis

A recent study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzing spinal surgeries done on Medicare patients who were diagnosed with lumbar stenosis.

Let’s rewind – what is lumbar stenosis? Lumbar refers to the lower part of the spine, where we would normally identify as low back. Stenosis refers to the narrowing of the bones in the spine, often pushing or compressing the nerves that being in the spinal cord and extend into your legs. Spinal stenosis is often associated with pain and numbness in the leg.

When a patient is diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis, a wide variety of treatments are offered. If the spinal stenosis is actually causing pain and difficulties functioning, such as walking, you would imagine that exercise and physical therapy would have little or no effect. However, pBack Painhysical therapy and exercise are frequently prescribed and may reduce symptoms. This means that at least some of the pain is from muscles and that the picture seen with the CT or MRI showing the nerves being compressed wasn’t accurately showing the reason for all the pain. Without a thorough examination of the muscles in the lower body, we may overlook an easily treated source of pain.

Overreliance on imaging studies can lead to unnecessary, costly, and sometimes damaging treatments, which may include various pain medications, injections (such as epidural injections), and surgery. When surgery is recommended, there are different complexities of surgeries that can be performed.

In this recent study, the surgeries were divided into three categories: 1. Decompression by itself (removing a small piece of bone from the spine to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves), 2. Simple (only 1-2 levels) fusion (fusing the bones in the spine using metal and or bone that may be harvested from the hip or provided by a bone bank), or 3. Complex Fusion (more than 2 levels and/or anterior [front] and posterior [back] approach). From the years 2002 to 2007, the number of decompression and simple fusion surgeries decreased while the number of complex fusion surgeries increased 15-fold. With increasing complexity of the surgery, the odds for complications and rehospitalization significantly increase without a significant demonstrated improvement in outcomes.

We should all be concerned that the number of complex surgeries is increasing, causing more severe side effects and death. Hospital charges alone for a less complex surgery can cost around $23,000 while the complex surgeries may cost over $80,000.



In today’s world we are bombarded by information and ways to obtain it. Do you want to know how many steps you take a day? Just buy a device and it will calculate it for you. Care to know what your cholesterol levels are? Simply go get a kit at your nearest drug store. Is it possible we are gathering too much information for our own good?

The same question can be asked about medical testing. Is it useful or even helpful to know certain things about our bodies? Many of us have undoubtedly had the experience where we have gone to the doctor because we had pain and an imaging study was ordered. MRI, CT, and ultrasound can give us information about our bodies that would have been unimaginable in the past.

While technology in general is of course a huge benefit, at the Norman Marcus Pain Institute, we believe it is necessary to proceed with caution as we navigate through it all. At NMPI, one common problem we find in back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain is the overuse and overreliance on imaging studies. “Abnormalities” are often found on imaging studies without any relation to one’s pain. In fact, seeing abnormalities is more common than seeing a “normal” spine!   For example, up to 40% of people without back pain can haveBack Pain herniated discs and as many as 70% may have degenerated discs. That is why the US Institute of Medicine suggests not getting an MRI too quickly since you are likely to see one of these problems and assume it is the cause of your pain. This can lead to unnecessary nerve blocks and surgery.

At NMPI, we often see patients who have a herniated disc, yet they only have pain in their back and buttock. They have not experienced any radiation into the leg(s) at all. In these patients, the pain generally has nothing to do with the disc herniation since disc herniation pain generally radiates down the leg and into the foot. Even when the patient is experiencing pain down the leg with a herniated disc found on MRI, muscles in the low back and buttocks may be the cause of the pain. If muscles are not examined as a potential cause, you may undergo an apparently reasonable surgery, without achieving relief of pain. Some studies show that up to 50% of spine surgeries fail (resulting in failed back surgery syndrome) and one of the reasons is the failure to identify muscles that were the true source of the pain.

Most back pain and neck pain is caused by soft tissue such as muscles and tendons. This is confusing because you may have been told your pain is from your spine, discs, or nerves. The problem is most people as they get older have signs of wear and tear on their x-rays and MRIs, but these common signs of aging may not explain your pain if the pain actually originates in your muscles. That’s why we say, when diagnosing persistent pain it’s not having “more” information at hand, it’s having the “right” information at hand.

At NMPI, we often see patients who experience persistent pain even after multiple spine surgeries. Our non-surgical, non-invasive treatment program has most of our patients leaving our office free of long standing back, neck, shoulder, and headache pain.


What To Do When Back Pain Causes Overdose?

“We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone.” If only we had a dime for every time we heard this. Perhaps the reason it is such a common expression is the simple truth in it. This certainly applies to our health, but specifically our backs. We probably all take our good health in vain, until something goes wrong. By the time we are in our forties over twenty percent of us experience some form of back pain. And what do we do when we experience pain? Well, unfortunately many people will turn to strong painkillers. This means opioids, morphine-like painkillers. And, while we have written about this topic in the past, there is something new on the horizon. Evzio, the brand name of injectable Naloxone, is a prescription medicine that can block the effects of morphine and related painkillers. Approved by the FDA in April 2014, it allows a patient to quickly treat themselves or be treated by a family member if the patient has overdosed on opioids.Evzio

In the past, Evzio was difficult to obtain due to its high cost. However, recently The Clinton Foundation announced that it has negotiated a lower price for Evzio (see NYT article). This will allow municipalities to more easily purchase this medication, making it more available to those who need it.

It is a sad reality that many people will turn, in desperation, to painkillers as an answer to their aching backs. We, at the Norman Marcus Pain Institute, only use opioids as a last resort. Our method of finding the source of the pain and treating it has eliminated back pain for thousands of patients.. Nevertheless, with the rise of overdoses each year, the increased availability of naloxone to non-medical personnel will allow lives to be saved.




From 1991 to 2009, the number of prescriptions written for the strongest pain medications tripled. These medications are collectively named opioids and include morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.Opioids are a type of pain drug that may cause serious side effects. From 2005 to 2009, the number of emergency room visits for nonmedical use of prescribed pain medication doubled. Therefore, the states and federal governments are acting to try to limit the amount of pain medication being prescribed.

At NMPI, we focus on finding the most effective treatment to relieve our patients’ pain – without surgery, steroid injections, or heavy painkillers. However, when a patient complains of severe pain and is not responding well to other pain medications, stronger, prescription opioids will be given.

Pain pills blog-Norman Marcus Pain Institute-blogSome opioids, such as oxycodone, are often combined with Tylenol (acetaminophen) in one pill. Some examples of these combination drugs are Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin (are all hydrocodone and acetaminophen), and Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen). Most often, severe pain is related to a condition that will improve over time. Ideally, all prescription pain medications should be given only while severe pain persists. Like any medication, there are risks and side effects:


• Opioids can make you drowsy – which raises the risk of falling and severe injury
• Opioids when mixed with alcohol, anti-anxiety medication, seizure medication, muscle relaxants, or sleep-aids can be deadly.
• Opioids cause constipation and can lower sex drive.
• Patients can become physically and psychologically dependent on opioids.
• Overtime a patient with chronic pain can develop a tolerance for the opioid and need a higher dosage.

Keep in mind that not all pain requires such strong medication, and most patients with pain can be managed with drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin-like drugs, called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen and Naproxen). When taken as directed, these less powerful drugs may be all that you need. (There are potential serious side effects with acetaminophen and NSAIDs, which I will discuss in a future blog.) For certain pains, some drugs are better than others. Sometimes we find that a drug we have been using may not actually be effective. A New York Times article on July 23, 2014 reported that for treating low back pain, acetaminophen was no better than a placebo.

Physicians have a responsibility to properly care for patients in pain. Some of these patients may appear to be at a higher risk to abuse opioids. Occasionally, patients complain of non-existent pain to obtain opioids for its mood-altering affect, called a “high.” The fact is that physicians who had been writing too many prescriptions for pain medication are now wary of prescribing any potentially habit-forming pain drugs. This has resulted in a decrease in emergency room visits for drug overdose and deaths from overdose, but it has also resulted in depriving many patients of medication they legitimately need to function normally.

At NMPI, when we treat patients in pain who have a history of drug abuse or who test positive on a written test to determine the risk of abuse, I believe that these two basic American traditions should be the guiding principles:

1. Innocent until proven guilty; and

2. In the words of Ronald Reagan, Trust but verify. Those patients who have problems or are at risk to not properly use pain medication need extra attention, not condemnation. They may be more difficult to treat, but that is why there are specialists to deal with complex pain problems.


Through the ages various explanations have been offered to explain the cause and how to treat it.  But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the spine and the nervous system were seen as the fundamental source of back pain. The idea that the cause of back pain was some injury or irritation in the bones and nerves of the spine was adopted by the medical community and this notion has persisted up to the present. With this in mind, recommending bed rest made sense-so bed rest became a standard treatment through most of the 20th century.  Some savvy physicians recommended staying active, but their opinion was drowned out by the bed rest proponents. If you have an injury it can take weeks to heal, and therefore it was common to have patients with back pain lie in bed, often in a hospital, sometimes without even getting up to go to the bathroom, for two or more weeks. It was only at the end of the 20th century, that the medical community recognized two facts:1. Back pain was usually not from any obvious injury. 2. Prolonged bed rest was not only not helpful, it was damaging. So patients with typical back pain began to be encouraged to remain active and to return to work as quickly as possible.

When x-rays were introduced, doctors could see the joints in the spine and the pelvis, and began to suggest that this is where the pain originated.  New phrases, such as “my sacroiliac is out” and I have a “bout of lumbago”, creeped into our conversations.  In the 1920s and 30s a variety of new creative surgeries were tried including fusing the sacroiliac joint, fusing the joint between the lumbar section of the spine and the sacrum and cutting out parts of the spinal column, all of which didn’t solve the problem and rapidly became unpopular. Some bad ideas with dreadful consequences don’t go away easily, and some physicians have reintroduced sacroiliac fusion. The joints that don’t look pretty on x-ray or now with MRI/CT scanning, although not undergoing surgery, still remain as targets for injections in pain centers.

The first report of spine surgery to remove a herniated disc to treat pain radiating down the leg (sciatica) was in 1934 and in 1935 the same operation was suggested as a treatment for back pain as well. The disc pressing on a nerve to cause pain shooting down the leg and the surgery to remove the part of the disc and bone in the spine to relieve the pressure on the nerve made sense and surgery for sciatica sometimes is indicated and successful. But looking to the disc as the cause of back without leg pain proved to be the foundation of the mistaken notion that the disc was the fundamental cause of most low back pain. This concept has led to needless surgeries, exorbitant costs and tragic suffering. Over the next twenty years surgery on the disc became one of the most common operations done by neurosurgeons.

The disc was not the reason for most back pain and many of the surgeries that were done were failures with patients experiencing no change or even worse back pain. The number of unsuccessful back surgeries was so high that a new diagnosis was created, something unique in all of medicine, “Failed Back Surgery Syndrome” , also known as “Post-laminectomy Syndrome”, referring to the part of the vertebra, the lamina, that is cut away to remove pressure from the disc. The surgeon was no longer the unquestioned authority as the answer to back pain. Many clinicians, including orthopedic and neurosurgeons, recognized that the problem of back pain was more complex than a problem in the discs and that many factors including emotions, job issues and physical conditioning, all contributed to the experience of back pain.

In the 1970s a new movement to understand pain in general, with back pain as a major focus, was spawned through the efforts of John Bonica, M.D. and his colleagues. More on Pain Treatment Centers next time.


Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

Anna is a 40 year old married woman, who had been on bed rest for approximately 3 years because of her pain. After a spinal fusion, discectomy, facet blocks and physical therapy, she was still having severe pain in her low back. Another surgery was suggested.

When I examined Anna, I identified and treated 5 muscles in her low back and buttocks (lumbar paraspinals and piriformis on both sides and the left gluteus medius). Each muscle was treated with an injection technique that addresses the muscle attachments and tissue and followed with a 3 day physical therapy protocol. She was taught an exercise program, developed at the Columbia University School of Medicine in 1960 and given to 300,000 participants at the YMCA, to help keep her muscles relaxed, limber and strong. With significant relief in her pain, she traveled to Asia a few months following treatment, began working part-time, and now 5 years later still reports being able to enjoy her life again.

Failed Back Surgery Syndrome is often thought to be amenable only to palliative interventions such as Spinal Cord Stimulation or chronic administration of opioids. Anna had muscle related pain that had not been considered as a possible cause of her ongoing post-operative pain. We will be posting other patient histories where persistent pain was caused by overlooked painful muscles.



The emphasis on procedures vs. cognitive and non-interventional approaches is a driving force in producing unsustainable costs of care in all areas of American Medicine. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that some procedures are reimbursed 3-5X more than cognitive services.  The insurance industry appears to have inadvertently affected the delivery of care for patients in pain by incentivizing expensive interventional procedures and shortchanging all others.

In the past 40 years the field of Pain Medicine has shifted dramatically. A Thermidorian Reaction has occurred in the pain treatment community. The failure of surgical interventions for many chronic pain problems was the foundation for the original mission of clinicians treating these patients. We were aware that focusing on a putative pain generator in the periphery or relying on opioids to minimize pain and suffering, often produced sub-optimal results.  We have reverted to the position against which we originally revolted. The platinum standard of care, the multi-disciplinary pain treatment center has been supplanted by high tech expensive interventions, often of questionable value (cost divided by effectiveness).

How can we take advantage of technological innovation in Medicine whilst at the same time continue to value what is simple and works well? This will require a shift in how we pay for medical services.  As we have seen when there is a large disparity between pay scales in different medical disciplines, human nature will oblige many new graduates to avoid the least reimbursed fields. Ultimately society suffers. If exercise can eliminate back pain in some patients who appear to have an operable lesion how can we improve the chances that it will be tried first? If we do not collectively come up with an effective solution, someone else will. What are your thoughts?


Spine surgery and exercise

I was interviewed, on Doctor Radio on Sirius XM. One of the callers told us that after she had spine fusion her pain was eliminated but if she didn’t do exercises at least every other day her muscles above and below the surgical site would tighten up and  pain would begin to return. Even when surgery is indicated for back pain, proper conditioning of the postural muscles is still important.

If she didn’t have a good physical therapist and she wasn’t motivated to doing her exercises her surgery might have been considered a failure, another Failed Back Syndrome. Too often the need to address muscle health is overlooked in the treatment of persistent pain problems. As I emphasize in End Back Pain Forever, exercise and physical conditioning should be taught in grade school and encouraged throughout our life.


End Back Pain Forever: Chapter 2, part 4 #endbackpain

This excerpt from my book End Back Pain Forever,  is about my mentor and friend, Dr. Hans Kraus. He changed the way I viewed pain and the treatment of pain, and enhanced my life and ultimately my patients’ lives for the better.

Chapter 2

You Are Not Alone: The Back Pain Epidemic (Part 4)

     Then, in 1993, I met Dr. Hans Kraus. He was to transform my life and the life of my patients. He was eighty-five years old and had just retired from his practice as a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. He had also given up mountaineering and rock climbing. In all those pursuits, he had won international acclaim. Originally trained as an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Vienna, Dr. Kraus was well known for having successfully treated President John F. Kennedy’s back after all prior treatments had failed. Yet his nonsurgical approach to treating patients with muscle pain, especially low back pain, was not accepted by other doctors, including some of the very doctors who referred their own patients to him for what proved to be successful treatment.

For example, one prominent orthopedic surgeon at the Columbia University School of Medicine, Dr. Frank Stinchfield, who routinely sent many of his back pain patients to Dr. Kraus, underwent spinal surgery rather than consult him for his own back pain after a herniated disk was diagnosed. The surgery failed, and Dr. Stinchfield was never able to work again because of unrelenting pain.

Another disappointing example was that of Dr. Jonas Salk, best known for developing the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Dr. Salk did consult Dr. Kraus for back pain, and the treatment was successful. It eliminated Dr. Salk’s pain and allowed him to avoid surgery. Yet when Dr. Kraus needed Dr. Salk’s help to obtain research support, the famed medical researcher declined. He said that muscle pain didn’t have a “scientific foundation.” That has since changed, and we will look at the basic research explaining the mechanisms of muscle pain in Chapter 4.

In our first meeting, Dr. Kraus asked what I did. I told him that I treated patients with chronic pain.

“How do you do that?” he asked.

“I teach them how to manage their pain, how to deal with it, live with it.”

“Why not get rid of their pain?”

“Because it’s chronic pain,” I said. “You can sometimes reduce it, but you can’t get rid of it.”

He persisted. “Have you treated the muscles?”

“We treat the muscles with aerobic exercises.”

“Aerobic exercises? Really? Muscle pain caused by muscle spasm, tension, stiffness, and trigger points does not respond to aerobics. But it will respond to other types of exercises: prescribed exercises designed to treat the specific source of pain. That’s what I’ve done.”

“Low-impact aerobics are the standard way,” I said.

“They may be the standard way,” he replied. “But they are sure to make many of your patients feel worse.”

He asked if I had “very difficult cases,” and I told him that I did. “Some,” I added, “are impossible to treat.”

“Would you mind if I were to examine one of them?”



Chapter 2 of End Back Pain Forever delves into the ever-increasing problem of the back pain epidemic. Please review this blog for Chapters 1 and 2 from my book.

Chapter 2

You Are Not Alone: The Back Pain Epidemic

     If you suffer from back pain, you are not alone. The widespread failure by doctors to recognize muscles as the primary source of back pain is helping to fuel an epidemic. Back pain is now the most common disability in the United States. Every year twelve million Americans make new-patient visits to physicians for back pain and a reported one hundred million visits to chiropractors. At the current rate, eight out of ten Americans will experience back pain sometime during their lives.

In addition to the human suffering, medical costs are soaring. The cost of back pain, together with related neck pain, came to $86 billion in 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available. That was an increase of $34 billion from 1997. More amazingly, 25 percent of patients reported being significantly impaired, compared with 20 percent eight years earlier. Spending on back pain now equals the amount spent on cancer and is largely the result of failed surgeries, various nerve block procedures, and the cost of pain medications. We are spending more and getting worse results.

Read the rest of this entry


Knee pain, back pain, and muscles

A large study of army recruits demonstrated the protective effect of exercise on the development of knee pain. Male and female recruits who performed 4 stretching and 4 strengthening exercises for 7 weeks, were 75% less likely to develop anterior knee pain.
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Follow-up to recent Failed Spinal Fusion post:

The patient mentioned in the blog posted in March, 2011 copied me on an email he sent:

“I’ve been waiting for clearance from my surgeon who finally declared my fusion as failed (FBSS) in early March and offered no additional hope for pain reduction. At one-year post surgery I could be evaluated for an implanted morphine pump or spinal cord stim. Pain management started experimenting with oxymorphone and hydromorphone, which both had bad side effects and were less effective than the oxycodone. I’ve had the first two weeks of treatments with Dr. Marcus. The first week he did my left side lower back and leg, this Monday he did the right side lower and mid back. Pain reduction is at least 90%! I have much more energy, am more active and I’m beginning to feel flexible. He is also working on my mid-back and legs. I’ve been able to reduce oxycodone from ~180mg+/day to 60-80mg/day.”
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Spinal Cord Stimulators- How well do they work?

Results of a 2 year study on Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS), sponsored by St Jude’s Medical, Inc., found that 70 % of patients reported 50% or better pain relief at their final two-year visit. In addition 88% of these patients reported that their quality of life was improved or greatly improved. No specifics were reported concerning measures of success aside from reduction of back pain.

These results are much better than the previously reported SCS studies, A systematic review of SCS for failed back surgery syndrome and complex regional pain syndrome showed ~ 50% of patients achieved ~50% pain relief. The devil is in the details and without them, which should include how many patients had to have surgical revision of the SCS because of complications, the number of patients able to return to work, and the reduction in use of pain medications, it is difficult to come to any conclusions about the claims of extraordinary success.

~ Norman Marcus, MD
Norman Marcus Pain Institute, New York NY
“Your New York City Pain Relief Doctor”

History of the concept of the spine as the cause of back pain

Back pain can be found in the medical literature as far back as 1500 B.C. in Egypt.
Through the ages various explanations have been offered to explain the cause and how to treat it.  But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the spine and the nervous system were seen as the fundamental source of back pain. The idea that the cause of back pain was some injury or irritation in the bones and nerves of the spine was adopted by the medical community and this notion has persisted up to the present. With this in mind, recommending bed rest made sense-so bed rest became a standard treatment through most of the 20th century.  Some savvy physicians recommended staying active, but their opinion was drowned out by the bed rest proponents. If you have an injury it can take weeks to heal, and therefore it was common to have patients with back pain lie in bed, often in a hospital, sometimes without even getting up to go to the bathroom, for two or more weeks. It was only at the end of the 20th century, that the medical community recognized two facts:1. Back pain was usually not from any obvious injury. 2. Prolonged bed rest was not only not helpful, it was damaging. So patients with typical back pain began to be encouraged to remain active and to return to work as quickly as possible.
Read the rest of this entry


What causes my back pain?

With severe back pain we frequently worry about having a herniated disc. If you have back pain and get an MRI chances are you’ll find something. At NY Hospital/Weill-Cornell, 90% of the MRIs of the low back are read as abnormal. But most back pain is diagnosed as “Idiopathic /Non-specific”, referring to sprains and strains of soft tissue such as muscle. But common soft tissue problems are not seen on the MRI so we often incorrectly assume that what we see on the image, such as disc herniaton/bulge, degenerated discs, spinal stenosis, facet arthritis, spondylolisthesis, is the cause of the pain. When we treat these “causes” we have many failures. Actually in some studies more than 50% of the back surgeries are unsuccessful leading to a new diagnosis, Failed Back Surgery Syndrome. Some clinicians recognize that muscles could be a source of the back pain and have attempted to treat the muscle that they have identified by applying pressure (palpation) to the suspected painful muscle. There are a variety of treatments that are offered. I will discuss some of them next time.

~Norman J. Marcus, MD
Norman Marcus Pain Institute, New York NY 
“Your New York City Pain Relief Doctor”
30 East 40th Street - New York, NY 10016
Tel 212-532-7999 Fax 212-532-5957
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