How can we know what back pain treatments make sense?

If the cost of health care is to be reduced in the US, new methods should be established to pay clinicians, pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers. If graduating medical students are so laden with debt that paying it off is more important than the possibility of ongoing study and academic pursuit, we must lower the cost to the student of medical education. If the cost of drug development is so high that huge prices must be charged for pills, we must find ways to reduce the cost of development of new pharmaceuticals. These fundamental issues in health care have an impact on the standard of care of back pain in the USA. Read the rest of this entry

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Bedside Manner and the power of suggestion in back pain

Prior to drawing blood, saying a word to patients that suggested pain increased the likelihood of them experiencing pain. You might think of this study as just another example of the importance of “Bedside manner”- the awareness of the importance of the behavior and speech of the physician or other care-takers, on the feeling of well-being of the patient. Eugene Bauer, M.D., a Viennese physician, said in 1931: “A word in the mouth of a physician is as important as the scalpel in the hands of a surgeon”. Words can cut, soothe, and rattle. How you are approached by a doctor is determined not only by their personality but also by the beliefs concerning your problem.

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Obesity, poverty, and community influence- back pain

Obesity is more prevalent in neighborhoods with a high incidence of poverty. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that encouraging families to relocate to higher income neighborhoods could lower the rate of obesity and signs of diabetes. This finding may lead to a better understanding of how we can combat the obesity epidemic. Read the rest of this entry

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In the last part of Chapter 1 from End Back Pain Forever, we turn to the story of “Stephanie”. Please review this blog for the complete chapters 1 and 2 from my book.

“Doctor, My Back is Killing Me!”, Part 3

 

Take the case of a patient whom I shall call Stephanie. She is a married attorney who in 2004 began to experience stiffness whenever she she got up out of a chair. She also had problems straightening up if she bent over. This was bothersome, but it was nothing compared to her first attack of spasms in her low back, on the right side. The spasms were incapacitating. She couldn’t walk and had to lie in bed for four days, taking painkillers and muscle relaxants. When the spasms broke, she still felt an inkling of discomfort that would frequently and unexpectedly morph into repeat episodes of painful spasms.

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Here is Part 2 of Chapter 1 from my book, End Back Pain Forever.  Click here for Part 1.

Chapter 1

“Doctor, My Back is Killing Me!”, Part 2

“I can put you on strong medication to dull the pain,” says the doctor. “It may be that your spine is the problem.”

“Does that mean surgery?”

“It could. Surgeons do a million spinal operations a year.”

Surgery on your spine is the last thing you want to do, but your back pain is horrendous. And, of course, you want to get better. So you say, “Can’t we do an MRI or a CT scan to see if there’s anything wrong with the spine?” MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is a picture generated by magnetic fields, while a CT (computed tomography) scan is a picture generated by X-rays.

When you are shown the test results, the doctor points out that the images of your spine show that you have, say, a herniated disc (in which the cushion between two bony vertebrae is either protruding or has ruptured) or spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column that houses your spinal cord), or some other spinal anomaly–and that, apparently, is the cause of your pain.

But if it were true that the abnormality on the MRI or CT scan was indeed the cause of your pain, I wouldn’t have written this book–because almost no one has a “normal” MRI or CT scan of the lower spine, and what is read as abnormal is frequently not the cause of your pain.

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Where to begin? In the first two chapters of my book I explore a variety of issues related to the difficulties in evaluating and treating patients with back pain. I am posting these chapters as a means to share my perspective which developed over more than 40 years as a pain medicine physician in the US and the UK. I wrote End Back Pain Forever to open up a discussion on back pain and provide insights on effective treatments.

 

Chapter 1

“Doctor, My Back is Killing Me!”

You felt a twitch in your low back, then a heaviness and a sudden stab of pain. It struck without warning — when you were crossing the street, stacking the dishwasher, jogging, whacking a golf ball, lifting a baby, swatting a fly, carrying groceries, bending over, getting out of a car, or just turning on a faucet.

Now you’re afraid to move. You’re locked in place. You feel a belt of pain pulsing across your back from hip to hip. You wonder, what’s happening? What did I do to get this? You feel as though you’re cut in half as the pain seems to separate you from your legs. Will the pain go away? Will it stay? Gingerly you start to move, but the pain only strikes harder. No, it’s not going away, not at all. And if — this is a big “if” — the pain does not ease off in a few days or go away in a couple of weeks, without proper treatment it is certain to return because your back is a target waiting to get hit again.

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Newly published study showing positive muscle treatment results

Dr. Marcus and his colleagues just published a 2 part long-term muscle treatment outcome study of lower back pain patients who were originally diagnosed as having pain in the spine and nerves exiting the spine (i.e. herniated disc, facet arthropathy, spinal stenosis, lumbar radiculopathy). The first large group of patients had been treated unsuccessfully with one or more of the following: spine surgery, facet blocks, radiofrequency ablation, trigger point injections and prolotherapy. The second small group were scheduled for back surgery. Both groups responded to a muscle treatment protocol with significant reductions in pain intensity and improvements in level of activity.  Three of seven pre-surgery patients, identified with painful muscles, had their surgeries cancelled. Results were maintained at > 14 months follow-up. This second published study of his muscle evaluation and treatment protocol suggests that improved treatment and cost of care could result if muscles were routinely evaluated and treated in all patients with lower back pain. Click here to read the study document.

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A discussion about back pain

Back PainWhere to begin? In the first two chapters of my book, End Back Pain Forever,  I explore a variety of issues related to the difficulties in evaluating and treating patients with back pain. I am posting these chapters as a means to share my perspective which developed over more than 40 years as a pain medicine physician in the US and the UK. I encourage the members of my LinkedIn Group, Let’s Talk About Pain to agree, disagree, or share your own experience as a patient, family member of a patient, or clinician.

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The cost of evaluating and treating lower back pain and neck pain is rising. From 1997-2005 it went up from $54 to $86 billion/year. Unfortunately, advances in spine surgery techniques, nerve blocks, and pain medication have not translated into more successful treatment – from 1997-2005, 25% more patients reported difficulties functioning because of neck pain or back pain.

Although 70-80% of back pain is diagnosed as non-specific lower back pain, referring to sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments and tendons, the current guidelines do not mention muscle as a possible source of persistent back pain. This leads to an overemphasis on the spine and the nerves leaving the spine.

We need a treatment model (step-care) that addresses the most common reason for back pain first. Protocols that provide soft tissue treatments that are least costly with minimal chance of harm, should produce better, more cost-effective outcomes.

Spending more money to do the same kinds of treatment is not working. This discussion group will explore possible reasons for sub-optimal pain treatment outcomes. How can we change the way we evaluate and treat persistent pain to improve our results and lower the costs of care?

A search for back pain on the internet finds almost 600 million sites. With so many different ideas on how to address this problem, we will attempt to narrow the discussion to concepts that have been studied and published in scientific journals. One obvious issue is the absence of a muscle evaluation and treatment protocol.

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Epidural Steroids- Are they worth the downside risk?

The tragic occurrence of meningitis, stroke and death following use of infected steroids used for spine injections should make us more aware that this very common treatment for back pain may not be worth the risks. The use of epidural steroid injections (ESIs) to shrink an inflamed nerve thought to be causing back pain has not been shown to consistently reduce pain and even when it does the benefit is frequently short-lived. Aside from infection, other rare but serious side effects include bleeding that can cause  nerve damage with possble weakness and paralysis, and additional pain. Steroids themselves have been the cause of bone  (aseptic necrosis) and tendon  damage.

Multiple medical professional organizations have suggested that ESIs should not be used for long standing back or neck pain or for pain in the back or neck that does not radiate to the arms or legs. Despite the evidence that even when ESIs reduce or eliminate pain, at best they are useful for 3 months or less. Other countries i.e. Denmark, rarely use ESIs. 

As long as a thorough physical examination does not take place with all patients complaining of back or neck pain, with the purpose of determining if muscles are a source of pain, we will continue to rely on imaging studies that lead us to mistakenly believe that all back pain comes from the spine and the nerves leaving the spine. Continuing to provide unnecessary and ineffective treatments not only squanders our limited resources but could cause irreparable harm.

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Opioid misuse

“Thank you for treating me as someone struggling with pain and not as a former drug addict who could not be trusted with strong pain medication”  – a note I recently received from one of my patients.

A patient with a history of drug abuse may be fearful that their past will prevent adequate treatment for a serious painful condition. My patient imagined that I would not be respectful of his suffering and his commitment to sober living. He received the pain medication that allowed him to go through a series of medical and dental procedures without suffering. He was grateful.

Concerns about opioid misuse have made physicians wary of  prescribing potentially habit-forming pain medication. Illicit prescription drug use is a growing problem in the USA and is actually the preferred street drug aside from marijuana. However in treating patients in pain, two basic American traditions should be the guiding principles with patients who have a history, or who test positive on a written test to determine the risk, of drug abuse:

1. Innocent until proven guilty; and

2. in the words of Ronald Reagan, Trust but verify. Those patients who have problems properly using 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.

 

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End Back Pain Forever: Chapter 2, part 5 #endbackpain

In this next segment, I take Hans up on his offer to examine one of my patients. Read what happens next!

Click here for the Part 4 segment.

Chapter 2

You Are Not Alone: The Back Pain Epidemic (Part 5)

     Dr. Kraus and I met a week later at Lenox Hill. I had chosen a patient whom I shall call Beth. She was a forty-five year-old woman so defeated by pain after three unsuccessful spinal operations that she could no longer hold a job. Her life had revolved around her work, which was at the core of her sense of self. She was devastated. No one had found a truly successful treatment for her, and I did not believe that anyone could. She was on high doses of morphine, 60 milligrams orally five to six times a day, to relieve her pain.

After reviewing her case history, Dr. Kraus gave her a comprehensive and thoughtful mental and physical examination. Starting with her neck, he used his fingertips to palpate her muscles to distinguish between those that were supple and pain free and those that were stiff and painful. He found five pairs of painful muscles on both sides of the lower back, buttocks, and thighs.  “If these muscles are treated properly,” he told me, “it should reduce or eliminate her pain.” Read the rest of this entry

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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?”

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End Back Pain Forever: Chapter 2, part 3 #endbackpain

This excerpt from my book End Back Pain Forever, provides a small summary of my early involvement in pain medicine.

Chapter 2

You Are Not Alone: The Back Pain Epidemic (Part 3)

     In 1975, I became a staff physician in the Montefiore Department of Neurology’s Headache Unit, founded by Dr. Arnold Friedman. Two years later, with Dr. Edith Kepes, an anesthesiologist at the hospital, we started the first outpatient pain center in New York City, effectively following the lead of Dr. John J. Bonica, a medical giant to whom we owe the study of pain as a recognized discipline. As a young army anesthesiologist during World War II, he pioneered pain-relieving techniques and treated ten thousand wounded soldiers. Dr. Bonica went on to write a 1,500-page medical classic, The Management of Pain, Dr. Kepes and I began a team approach with practitioners from different fields – including colleagues from anesthesiology, neurology, orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, physiatry, psychiatry, and psychology – all of whom were interested in what could be done for patients tormented by chronic pain.

I subsequently expanded on this concept by starting the New York Pain Treatment Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1983. It was considered a state-of-the-art treatment center in a hospital setting, with an integrated team that involved not only doctors but also physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, and pain rehabilitation nurses. We used a variety of treatments: biofeedback and relaxation training; physical therapy to increase strength, mobility, and endurance; hypnosis to help control pain; stress management to provide coping skills for handling daily upsets that may increase muscle tension; occupational therapy  to teach patients how to complete their routine tasks effectively through proper time management; individual, family, and group psychotherapy to resolve personal difficulties related to living with chronic pain; and medication management to eliminate many ineffective drugs that patients were taking in their journeys from doctor to doctor.

But our program had a basic flaw. We were convinced that teaching people how to live with their pain was usually the best we could do. We didn’t believe that we could eliminate their pain. Many of our patients remained on strong medication indefinitely. If a patient had a 35 percent decrease in pain, I considered that good. If we got it down to 50 percent, it was considered a success.

Along with the vast majority of physicians, I was committed to the fallacy that most chronic pain couldn’t be cured. Then, in 1993, I met Dr. Hans Kraus. He was to transform my life and the life of my patients.

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

I wrote End Back Pain Forever  to open up a discussion on back pain and provide insights on effective treatments. I have posted the first two chapters of the book on my blog.

 Chapter 2

You Are Not Alone: The Back Pain Epidemic (Part 2)

As a physician specializing in pain medicine, I know how intimately mind and muscles interact. I can literally see a patient’s mental stress in tense, taut muscles. Early on in my training at Montefiore Medical Center in psychosomatic medicine, which is the study of how the mind and body interact, I could see that the separation of mind and body in medical practice made little sense. This drew me to a newly introduced technology, biofeedback, which enabled me to integrate my medical education with my psychiatric practice at the time.

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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.

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Why do we over-prescribe strong pain medication?

The NY Times on 4/9/2012 ran a story about the overuse and unintended negative consequences of strong (opioid) pain medication. They mentioned opposing views concerning the liberal use of opioids. I participated in a debate in 1995 about the inappropriate use of the diagnosis “Chronic Pain Syndrome”(CPS) in patients whose muscles had not been assessed as a cause of their persistent pain, which resulted in the justification to put some of these patients on opioids for the rest of their lives.   

Since then one of the largest growth industries in medicine is the evaluation and treatment of back and neck pain, currently accounting for ~$100 billion in direct medical costs. The pain juggernaut is fueled in part by ignoring muscles which are the most common reason for pain complaints. Addressing the incorrect causes of pain leads to inappropriate, expensive and potentially harmful treatments with poor outcomes, persisitent pain, and overuse of opioids. CPS is a license to prescribe life-long medication. Chronic use of opioids has not been studied for its overall impact on patients with CPS but neither have any of the other medications that we are now using. Does the marginal reduction in pain in many of the patients taking these medications justify their costs and side effects? As the Times reports, for some patients the treatment is actually making them worse.

Imagine if some of these patients had pain that could be eliminated. Many do; it’s from muscles that are not evaluated or treated in a systematic way.  My new book, End Back Pain Forever, to be released by Atria on June 5, 2012 is a wakeup call to change the way we are treating common pain problems.

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Strong pain medication after surgery – is there a downside?

A recent article  revealed that 2/3 of patients who received opioids (drugs like morphine) for 90 days following surgery were still taking them one year later. It doesn’t make sense that there still is pain from the surgery one year later. Did these patients become dependent or addicted to the drugs?  Did they really need the medication for pain in the first place?

It was suggested that patients who undergo minimally painful surgeries should perhaps never receive opioids for pain. This thinking is consistent with the current discussion in the USA about the dangers of overuse and abuse of opioids. Annual emergency room visits and unintentional deaths from opioids have dramatically increased in the past five years. Widespread, persistent use of opioids is increasing without a clear understanding of the benefits or of all the associated risks. Making it harder to get the medication and limiting its availability is one way to reduce the unwanted effects.

Many physicians have been alarmed over the misuse of opioids and will not prescribe them at all or will often provide less than adequate doses to effectively treat their patient’s pain. I recently saw a young man who, despite severe back pain that would require surgery, was denied opioid pain medication because he had a high score on a test that measured risk for its misuse. Since I understood the risk, I was able to successfully provide opioids while staying in close contact with the patient and his mother before and after surgery.

Indiscriminate provision of opioids is potentially harmful but so are overly restrictive attitudes and rules governing its availability. Each patient deserves to be evaluated as an individual so that compassionate and rational pain care can be provided.

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How do I know if kinesiophobia is a factor in my pain?

There may be more to your pain than you think. Pain affects how you feel and how you move your body. More often than not, these changes happen without you even realizing it.  Consider a concept known as kinesiophobia, defined as a fear of movement associated with anxiety related to an injury. Just as stress and anxiety can make pain worse, kinesiophobia can prevent a patient from recovering to their full extent and achieving relief from muscle pain.

 

An example….

Consider the case of a 50-year-old woman who was visiting the Norman Marcus Pain Institute for the treatment of her foot and ankle pain. The pain started two weeks after a fall, and had plagued her for five months. Because she felt that she was unable to walk without support, she used a walker or a cane. She complained of pain in her heel and ankle and in her Achilles tendon.   Her foot was cold and clammy. Attempting to move her foot up and down and applying pressure to the painful areas caused the pain to become much worse. Read the rest of this entry

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Why does back pain appear to move or change intensity?

There are three different mechanisms that affect your back pain when it is related to muscles- and that means most of the pain you will experience in your life.

1. Referred back pain patterns- Pain may be referred from one muscle to another when the nerves carrying painful sensations in a muscle stimulates the same area in the spinal cord as an adjacent muscle.

2. Central sensitization- When a painful area of the body stimulates the spinal cord and makes the cord more  active, other sensations coming in to the cord that would usually not be experienced as painful are now experienced as pain- like turning up the volume on your stereo and hearing things that you don’t hear when the volume is low. So when the original area of damage causing the pain is properly treated the other scattered areas of pain may disappear.
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Your bulging disc is not what’s hurting

Two days ago I reported on a study that showed we are frequently doing a disservice to patients in inappropriately ordering imaging studies such as MRIs. Yesterday I saw a patient who could be the poster person for the study. This patient had a back injury one year ago when a fall onto the buttock produced lasting severe low back pain. The pain doesn’t radiate-it is only in a discrete area on the buttock. She felt a tender sensation when the area was pressed.

Despite the obvious findings suggesting the cause of her pain was muscle and not spine and nerves coming from the spine, an MRI was ordered and it showed a bulging disc and she was told this was the cause of her back pain. She has had a variety of physical therapy interventions and injections without relief.

Her physical examination showed that she could touch her toes and her straight leg raising was 90 degrees, rarely if ever seen with a patient whose pain was the result of a disc. She did have two muscles, the Gluteus Maximus and Piriformis, which were tender when stimulated by the Muscle Pain Detection Device. This showed that these muscles were the probable cause of her pain. A ketamine based cream was applied to the skin over these muscles and her pain was gone, further supporting the connection between the muscles identified and her long-standing back pain.
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