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Fusion surgeries designed to alleviate pain from degenerating discs don’t work
A new study in the journal Spine shows that in many cases surgery can even backfire, leaving patients in more pain.
Researchers reviewed records from 1,450 patients in the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation database who had diagnoses of disc degeneration, disc herniation or radiculopathy, a nerve condition that causes tingling and weakness of the limbs. Half of the patients had surgery to fuse two or more vertebrae in hopes of curing low back pain. The other half had no surgery, even though they had comparable diagnoses.
After two years, just 26 percent of those who had surgery returned to work. That's compared to 67 percent of patients who didn't have surgery. In what might be the most troubling study finding, researchers determined that there was a 41 percent increase in the use of painkillers, specifically opiates, in those who had surgery.
The study provides clear evidence that for many patients, fusion surgeries designed to alleviate pain from degenerating discs don't work, says the study's lead author Dr. Trang Nguyen, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Pain management experts - and some surgeons - say that patients need to scale back their expectations. With the right treatments, pain can be eased, but a complete cure is unlikely.
METHODS: A total of 725 lumbar fusion cases were compared to 725 controls who were randomly selected from a pool of WC subjects with chronic low back pain diagnoses with dates of injury between January 1, 1999 and December 31, 2001. The study ended on January 31, 2006. Main outcomes were reported as RTW status 2 years after the date of injury (for controls) or 2 years after date of surgery (for cases). Disability, reoperations, complications, opioid usage, and deaths were also determined.
RESULTS: Two years after fusion surgery, 26% (n = 188) of fusion cases had RTW, while 67% (n = 483) of nonsurgical controls had RTW (P= 0.001) within 2 years from the date of injury. The reoperation rate was 27% (n = 194) for surgical patients. Of the lumbar fusion subjects, 36% (n = 264) had complications. Permanent disability rates were 11% (n = 82) for cases and 2% (n = 11) for nonoperative controls (P= 0.001). Seventeen surgical patients and 11 controls died by the end of the study (P = 0.26). For lumbar fusion subjects, daily opioid use increased 41% after surgery, with 76% (n = 550) of cases continuing opioid use after surgery. Total number of days off work was more prolonged for cases compared to controls, 1140 and 316 days, respectively (P < 0.001). Final multivariate, logistic regression analysis indicated the number of days off before surgery odds ratio [OR], 0.94 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.92-0.97); legal representation OR, 3.43 (95% CI, 1.58-7.41); daily morphine usage OR, 0.83 (95% CI, 0.71-0.98); reoperation OR, 0.42 (95% CI, 0.26-0.69); and complications OR, 0.25 (95% CI, 0.07-0.90), are significant predictors of RTW for lumbar fusion patients.
CONCLUSIONS: This Lumbar fusion for the diagnoses of disc degeneration, disc herniation, and/or radiculopathy in a WC setting is associated with significant increase in disability, opiate use, prolonged work loss, and poor RTW status.
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