Epidural Steroid Injections Won’t Solve Your Back Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

A lawsuit was in the news recently about a Kentucky doctor who refused to give his patients pain medication unless they had epidural steroid injections.

Really? I have run across this scenario many times throughout my 32 years of performing complex spine surgery. It is a huge problem from several perspectives.

First of all, epidural steroid injections don’t provide lasting relief for any indication. This is particularly true when they are recommended for neck or back pain. There is not any research paper indicating a significant benefit. Yet they continue to be administered at a high rate.

I prescribed them sparingly for acute ruptured discs, where the natural history is for them to resolve without surgery most of the time. The steroids do knock down the inflammatory response that occurs around the disc material, so it buys some time and sanity while the body heals.

I also used them occasionally for spinal stenosis (constriction of the nerves). Pain in the arms and legs would usually improve for a short period of time.

What was unexpected was that many patients that I had on the schedule for surgery would cancel because their pain would disappear when they utilized other tools to calm down the body’s stress hormones. The more favorable hormone levels changed their pain threshold.

Epidural steroid injections as a stand-alone treatment might be of some benefit, but they aren’t going to definitively solve your chronic pain. Whatever benefit that a patient may feel probably comes from the systemic effects of the drug. Steroids make everything feel better, but it’s unfortunate that there are so many severe side effects.

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Let me share what happened to one patient.

Ralph was one of my favorite patients. I worked with him for over 20 years. I haven’t met a more well-intentioned human being. By the time I first met him, he had undergone over ten surgeries and was fused from his neck to his pelvis. He never had relief from his chronic back pain. I had to perform a couple of major surgeries just to get him standing up straight.

I worked hard with Ralph on a structured rehab approach with some modest success. I lost track of the number of phone calls. He had a lot of stress at home and was helping to raise a grandchild. In spite of his pain, he kept moving forward.

Then he broke through and had a dramatic decrease in his pain and better function. Ralph wasn’t pain free and his function was permanently limited because his spine was fused. But he was stable on a relatively low dose of opioids. We were both pleased.

I didn’t hear from Ralph for many years until he called me from his local hospital. He was quite ill. His entire spine was severely infected. His primary care physician, who took care of his meds, had retired. No one else would take care of his needs and he was referred to a local pain clinic, which performed a high volume of spinal injections. They would only prescribe opioids if Ralph agreed to the injections.

Not only are injections ineffective for back pain, they really don’t work in the presence of 12 prior surgeries. Ralph’s back was a mass of scar tissue, rods and bone without much of a nerve supply. There is also less blood supply in scar tissue and a much higher chance of infection. Where would you even place a needle if the whole back is fused?

We admitted Ralph and had to open up his whole spine, which was infected with several hundred milliliters of gross pus. It took another two operations to wash him out and get the wound closed. He eventually did well, and we continue to stay in touch.

Ralph had to undergo a proven ineffective procedure in a high-risk setting in order to obtain pain medications that were effective. He became seriously ill, underwent three additional surgeries with the attendant pain and misery, and the cost to society was over a hundred thousand dollars. I rest my case. 

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Doctors Won’t Treat My Chronic Pain

By Leanne Gooch, Guest Columnist

I have never been addicted to anything.

I feel the need to preface any conversation about my chronic pain with that statement. I have degeneration in my neck, arthritis, spinal stenosis, failed back surgery syndrome, and some other names that have been thrown into my medical charts. 

A layperson without chronic pain would wonder why I feel the need to document every boring detail of my health history. It’s because I’ve had to explain every minute detail to each and every provider I’ve seen. For 20 years!  

Initially, when my pain started, I had a good primary care doctor who tried hard to find and treat the cause. He prescribed pain medications and sent me to many specialists. But after injections, physical therapy, rehabilitation, etc., he became the first in a long line of doctors who would not treat me as a pain patient. 

I wasn’t considered “chronic” until the 10th year. I learned during that time that women are viewed by the medical profession as weak for reporting their pain. I have seen the faces of both men (doctors) and women (nurses) who judged my pain story as being overly dramatic and embellished.  

I was eventually sent to a hotshot, top-of-his-game neurosurgeon. He said I had degeneration in my spine that they would normally see in elderly patients, 60 or 70 years of age. I was told a surgery would fix me all up. They would cut, put some donor bone in, some screws to hold it all together, and that constant aching pain would be gone!

I signed on the dotted line. I was only 25 years old. Of course, now we know those surgeries are a very bad idea, especially for someone so young, because even if they’re effective in the short term, all that hardware eventually leads to further degeneration with age. 

I had a spinal fusion, was patted on the head and sent my way. In follow-up exams with the surgeon, I was told everything was perfect and that my pain would subside when I healed. “Go live your life,” he said.

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Yeah, not so much. I spent the next four years in even more pain and was dismissed by no less than six doctors, who claimed that because my x-rays showed everything was fine, I must be fine. I didn’t need further treatment. I didn’t need pain medication. There’s no way I could be in the pain I claimed to be in. 

Eventually, I got in with another hotshot surgeon, but this time it was at a hotshot hospital! They finally unearthed the fact that my fusion never did fuse. I had another surgery, but there were complications. They said my body rejected the donor bone. The bone would have to come from me, from my hip. They would need to cut the front and back of my neck, and my hip. They’d also put in more screws, metal plates and a metal bracket. 

The second surgery was not successful in ridding me of any pain. 

I was back on the merry-go-round of trying to find another doctor. In the interim, I’d gain and lose jobs due to whatever had taken up residence in my once amazingly functional body. I’d gain and lose medical insurance as well. Needless to say, I also went into deep and terrifying medical debt, while also being denied pain treatment. I was ineligible for individual policies because I had a pre-existing condition. 

I was forced into taking antidepressants when I didn’t need them. I wasn’t depressed, I was in pain. I was also forced to undergo counseling twice; both times I was dismissed after one visit because it wasn’t a mental issue I was dealing with. I was too embarrassed to properly express my pain levels. Forced to downplay how desperate I was for pain relief. 

I was even turned away by receptionists, who flatly and rudely said, “We don’t see or treat pain patients.”

That’s a short synopsis of why I am where I am 20 years later, essentially bedridden. The pain doesn’t allow for restful sleep. I can feel my health disappearing. I now have weight issues from hypothyroidism, no appetite most of the time, insomnia that doctors won’t treat, and very high blood pressure. 

After 18 years, I finally got to a pain clinic, as they call them now. The doctor has two physician assistants, one who believes everyone is a drug addict and one who wants to do a good job, but whose hands are tied by government guidelines and overreach. 

I am under-treated by a long shot, yet I am harassed by the pharmacist every single month. I use one pharmacy and one doctor, but still run into denial or delay getting a prescription filled. I had to explain and essentially beg the pharmacist to get a small script filled after my most recent invasive surgery for a spinal cord stimulator. 

Four months later, I’m still in tremendous pain and have a nearly constant tremor in my right arm. The stimulator seems to hit on a nerve and my muscles seize up, the pain rising to levels that I didn’t know a human could withstand. It’s awful. It’s painful. And I am under-medicated because of criminals I never had a thing to do with. 

I have been told that my pain will never get better and can never be cured. It will only get worse as the degeneration continues. Wishing for it to be over is a pervasive daily thought. I have to work diligently to chase those thoughts away, so as not to fall prey to giving up.

My doctors can’t or won’t treat me because my chronic pain contributed to all the addicts all over the world. I’ll admit that’s a ridiculous statement when they admit they’ve gone too far in denying me proper medical care. 

I am 43 years old.

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Leanne Gooch lives in Missouri.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Bad Bill That Won't Fight Opioid Addiction

(Editor’s note: Last month, PNN reported on the “Post-Surgical Injections as an Opioid Alternative Act,” one of dozens of bills Congress is considering to combat the opioid crisis. HR 5804 would raise Medicare’s reimbursement rate for epidurals and other spinal injections used to treat post-surgical pain. The bill – which was lobbied for by doctors who perform the procedures – has drawn little public scrutiny and was rushed through a congressional committee after one brief hearing.)

By Denise Molohon, Guest Columnist

Raising the reimbursement rate for post-surgical spinal injections would dramatically increase healthcare costs and disability rates. This is based on historical research and medical evidence.

A harmful procedure should never be considered a “standard of care” by the medical profession. Yet that is what has happened with epidural steroid injections (ESIs) and Congress is going along with it under the guise of preventing opioid addiction.

“In the United States, more than ten million epidural steroid injections are delivered each year, a number that makes them the bread and butter of interventional pain management practices,” wrote Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery.” 

The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia warned in 1994 that the risk of a dural puncture of the spinal cord during an injection was at least 5 percent. It also cautioned that “particular care must be taken if attempting an epidural injection in patients previously treated by spinal surgery.”

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In such cases, an epidural steroid injection (ESI) carries a very high risk of direct entry into the subarachnoid space, which can have catastrophic consequences to a patient, including the development of Adhesive Arachnoiditis, a chronic, painful and disabling inflammation of spinal nerves. I live with that condition, along with a growing number of other patients.

“The incidence of arachnoiditis has risen about 400% in the past decade,” says Forest Tennant, MD, Editor Emeritus of Practical Pain Management.

Between 2000 and 2011, there was a staggering 665% increase in the rate of lumbar and sacral epidural injections among Medicare beneficiaries. The data also show that there were enormous increases in spinal injections performed by physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists.

“We are doing too many of these, and many of those don’t meet the proper criteria,” Dr. Laxmaiah Manchikanti told The New York Times in 2012.  Manchikanti runs a pain clinic in Paducah, KY and is chairman of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians – which lobbied for HR 5804 and gave campaign contributions to its sponsors. He told The Times about 20 percent of doctors who perform ESIs are not adequately trained.

The growing use of spinal injections has not resulted in better care. Dr. Richard Deyo, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, told the The Times that “people with back pain are reporting more functional limitations and work limitation, rather than less.”

HR 5804 is more bad policy piling on top of an already failed campaign of opioid legislation -- much of it based on misinformation provided by the CDC -- that will perpetuate the tsunami of needless pain and overdose deaths. 

It needs to stop. Today. 

When profit is one of the major motivating factors of those seeking new legislation, those creating the legislation and those lobbying for it need to be questioned. Profitability should never play a factor in any treatment plan. However, it now seems to dominate the American healthcare system from diagnosis to testing to medication. 

This needs to change.

Medicine needs to be removed from the hands of lobbyists, PAC’s, and politicians and put back into the hands of the personal physician and his or her patient. It should be as individualized and unique as the medical needs of each patient. 

It truly is that simple. 

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Denise Molohon was disabled with Adhesive Arachnoiditis after multiple spinal surgeries.

Denise is a patient advocate for ASAP, the Arachnoiditis Society for Awareness & Prevention. She and her family live in Indiana.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Spinal Injection Bill Would Raise Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

Republicans and Democrats often claim that reducing the cost of healthcare is one of their major goals. But a bipartisan bill that is sailing through Congress with little debate will do just the opposite, raising the cost of some epidural, facet joint and other spinal injections used to treat pain by as much as 25 percent for Medicare beneficiaries.

Critics say the legislation is little more than a money grab by doctors who perform the procedures, under the guise of preventing opioid addiction.

The “Post-Surgical Injections as an Opioid Alternative Act” (HR 5804) is one of nearly 60 bills to combat the opioid crisis approved last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It moves to the full House for a vote.

The bill would partially reverse a decision made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2016 to cut the Medicare reimbursement rate for epidurals and other injections.  The interventional procedures – which do not involve opioids -- can cost several hundred dollars per injection.

The American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) lobbied unsuccessfully to get the reimbursement cuts overturned – until it found two Illinois Republican congressmen willing to sponsor HR 5804, Rep. John Shimkus and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi.

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“We first went to the CMS, then HHS, with no success in reversing draconian cuts for interventional techniques. CMS and the administration told us that it requires an Act of Congress,” ASIPP says on its website. “As a first step toward this, Shimkus and Krishnamoorthi have introduced H.R. 5804, which reverses some of the cuts for Ambulatory Surgery Center procedures. This is only the beginning. We have many other cuts to be reversed.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, Shimkus and Krishnamoorthi have both received $10,000 in campaign donations from ASIPP. The organization has spent over $500,000 on lobbying and donations so far in the 2017-2018 election cycle.

‘I Find It Hard to Trust CMS’

Shimkus introduced the ASIPP bill on May 15th and two days later helped shepherd it through its first and only hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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During the hearing, Shimkus claimed that by cutting the cost of spinal injections, CMS created a disincentive for doctors to perform the procedures and encouraged them to prescribe opioids instead.

“A lot of us were surprised to see CMS reduce the reimbursement rate for non-opioid pain treatments like epidurals for post-surgery pain,” Shimkus said. “I find it hard to trust CMS when those of us in this arena think their cut has led to more opioid use.

“A lot of us believe the inability to use epidurals to treat pain and prescribe opioids is not healthy for our country.”

To be clear, the CMS reimbursement cuts do not prevent any doctor from performing injections – it only made the shots less profitable. And Shimkus offered no evidence that the lower reimbursement rates encourage more opioid use – although he convinced many of his colleagues that they did.  

“I do think it's important in this crisis to be specific with CMS to make sure that we are not discouraging the use of non-opioid alternatives based on reimbursement-related issues,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD (R-IN), who is a cardiologist. “In my experience over the years, CMS makes reimbursement decisions based on the financial incentives to do so, not necessarily, in my opinion, based on what is the appropriate therapy.”

“I don't agree that epidurals are not an alternative (to opioids) already. They are. They are. I just had a conversation with a surgeon about that. So that's not so,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (R-CA).  “Imagine being able to manage pain without taking an opioid. We could do 20 other things together and it wouldn't equal that."

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) wasn’t buying any of it.

“I don’t think we have gotten any objective criteria to suggest that what CMS did is going to lead to more people taking opiates,” Pallone said. “I don't think there is any evidence to suggest that this legislation will lead to decreased opioid prescribing or a decreased prevalence of addiction.

“I think we are setting a bad precedent with the bill. I don't think that we, as Congress, are in a good position to pick and choose winners amongst therapies and procedures. I just don't think we know enough to understand the consequences of doing that to understand the relative value and the efficacy of different therapies and procedures on the market.”

Despite those concerns -- and after just 30 minutes of debate that included no public testimony -- committee members overwhelmingly supported the bill by a vote of 36 to 14. Nine Democrats joined with all Republicans on the committee in voting yes.

“What we are doing is temporarily reversing cuts to non-opioid treatment that we all agree save money and lives, then collecting to help ensure we are reimbursing providers at the most appropriate levels possible,” Shimkus said.

“That’s ASIPP talking,” says Terri Lewis, PhD, a researcher and longtime advocate for the pain community. “What does Shimkus know? Shimkus doesn’t know anything. There is no data to support that.”

Health Risks of Spinal Injections

There was no discussion by the committee about the effectiveness of epidurals and other spinal injections -- or of the health risks associated with their use.

Epidural injections have long been used to relieve pain during childbirth, but they are also increasingly being used to treat back pain, despite reports there is little evidence the shots are effective.

The FDA has also warned that the use of steroids in spinal injections – a procedure that’s never been approved by the agency -- “may result in rare but serious adverse events, including loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, and death.”

“Here we have a procedure that they’re trying to slip under the swimming pool fence that is not FDA approved, that relies on materials that are not regulated and/or contraindicated, and they’re trying to pull a fast one. And they could very easily do it in this climate of opioid hysteria,” said Lewis.

As PNN has reported, some pain management experts believe spinal injections are overused – in part because they’re more profitable for doctors than using opioids or other procedures.  

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“Probably everything that gets compensated well is over-utilized because it’s the compensation system. It’s a reimbursement system that pays more for treatment procedures than outcomes,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

A 2012 report by the General Accounting Office – a report requested by Rep. Pallone – found that unsanitary injection practices in ambulatory care clinics expose thousands of patients every year to blood borne pathogens such as hepatitis and HIV.  A perfectly sanitary needle can also go astray and puncture sensitive membranes in the spinal cord, leaving patients with serious and sometimes permanent injuries.      

“When it comes to spinal injections after surgery the risk to the patient, related to adverse events, increases substantially because spine surgery comes with risks of dural tears and accidental cuts,” says Terri Anderson, a Montana woman whose spine was damaged after receiving steroid injections for a ruptured disc in her back.  She now suffers from adhesive arachnoiditis, a chronic inflammation in the spinal membrane that causes severe pain.

“It is unconscionable that harmful injections would be pushed on unsuspecting pain patients,” Anderson said in an email to PNN. “It looks like the large hospital corporations and interventional pain professional societies have been busy lobbying our congressional representatives.  Apparently our healthcare system has become a profitable venture that indirectly contributes to many election campaigns in the U.S.”

No date has been set for a full House vote on HR 5804. To become law, it must pass both the House and Senate and then be signed by President Trump.  There is little opposition to the bill because many critics only recently learned that it was even being considered by Congress. 

“If this is allowed to stand, we have a problem,” says Lewis. “Another thing is Congress directing the practice of medicine. We’ve had just about enough of that.”