Spinal Fusions Ineffective for Osteoporosis Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There is little evidence that two surgical procedures commonly used to treat spinal fractures caused by osteoporosis reduce pain for patients better than pharmaceutical drugs, according to a new report by an international task force of bone health experts published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research..

More than 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, a loss of calcium and bone density that worsens over time and significantly raises the risk of bone fractures, especially among the elderly. About 750,000 spinal fractures occur each year in the United States alone.

The task force looked at two types of spinal fusions: vertebroplasty, where medical grade cement is injected into the broken vertebrae to fuse bone fragments together; and balloon kyphoplasty, where a balloon is inserted into the compressed area of the spine to lift it and allow the cement to be inserted. Metal plates, screws and rods can also be used in spinal fusions, but were not the focus of the study.

The researchers found little to no evidence that vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty relieve pain effectively. In five clinical studies, vertebroplasty provided no significant benefit in pain control over placebo or sham procedures. There were no placebo-controlled trials for balloon kyphoplasty, leaving doctors to rely on anecdotal, low-quality evidence.

"The message for doctors and their patients suffering from painful spinal fractures is that procedures to stabilize spinal fractures should not be a first choice for treatment," said lead author Peter Ebeling, MD, Head of the Department of Medicine in the School of Clinical Sciences at Monash University in Australia.

"While patients who had these surgeries may have had a short-term reduction in pain, we found that there was no significant benefit over the long-term in improving pain, back-related disability, and quality of life when compared with those who did not have the procedures."

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The task force report comes as spine surgeons increasingly market vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty as “minimally invasive" procedures that offer immediate relief from back pain without the risks of opioid medication. But there are still risks of infection, cement leakage and complications associated with elderly patients undergoing anesthesia.

Some 300,000 Medicare patients underwent vertebral augmentation between 2006-2014, with most getting the more expensive balloon kyphoplasty. The procedures have become so common they are recognized as a standard of care. The video below calls them "the most effective pain relieving treatments for elderly patients.”

"These procedures are not a magic bullet," says Bart Clarke, MD, President of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Health and a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “Until now, doctors have been left to sift through the data on their own to determine whether these procedures can benefit their patients. This report coalesces all that information concisely and provides recommendations to guide them."

Clarke said Mayo Clinic doctors do not typically perform vertebral augmentation procedures unless a patient's pain is unmanageable for more than 4-6 weeks. "We've seen that with analgesics and other pain relief, our patients often get better within about 6 weeks," he said.

The task force also focused on the need for osteoporosis prevention. About 25% of older men and women who have a hip fracture will have a second fracture within one year, as will around 20% of older patients who have a spinal fracture. Breaking a bone in your spine or hip may be so traumatic – especially for the elderly -- that it often leads to disability and chronic widespread body pain.

Recent studies have shown that many patients at high risk of fractures are not being diagnosed or treated for osteoporosis, even though hormones and bisphosphonate drugs can help strengthen their bones. Bisphosphonates such as Fosamax have been found to be effective at slowing the loss of bone mass and reducing fractures, but concerns about side effects made some patients reluctant to take bisphosphonates and doctors less likely to prescribe them.  

"Overall, prevention is critical. and we need to get these high-risk patients on anti-osteoporosis drugs that have proven to reduce future fractures by as much as 70 percent," Clarke said.

Bad Posture During Computer Use Leads to Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It's no secret that staring into a computer screen for too long can lead to a stiff neck or back pain. Many of us instinctively lean forward to get a closer look at laptop or tablet, without being fully aware of how bad our posture is or what it’s doing to our spines.

Researchers at San Francisco State University say this “head-forward position” compresses the neck and can lead to fatigue, headaches, poor concentration and muscle tension. And it takes less than a minute for the symptoms to start.

"When your posture is tall and erect, the muscles of your back can easily support the weight of your head and neck -- as much as 12 pounds," says Erik Peper, PhD, a Professor of Holistic Health at San Francisco State University.

"But when your head juts forward at a 45-degree angle, your neck acts like a fulcrum, like a long lever lifting a heavy object. Now the muscle weight of your head and neck is the equivalent of about 45 pounds. It is not surprising people get stiff necks and shoulder and back pain."

Peper and his colleagues tested the effects of head and neck position in a recent study published in the journal Biofeedback.

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

First, they asked 87 students to sit upright with their heads properly aligned on their necks and asked them to turn their heads. Then the students were asked to "scrunch" their necks and jut their heads forward. Ninety-two percent reported being able to turn their heads much farther when they were not scrunching.

In a second test, 125 students scrunched their necks for 30 seconds. Afterwards, 98 percent reported some level of pain in their head, neck or eyes.

“Most participants were totally surprised that 30 seconds of neck scrunching would rapidly increase symptoms and induce discomfort. It provided motivation to identify situations that evoked neck scrunching and avoid those situations or change the ergonomics,” Peper said.  

What can you do to prevent yourself from scrunching? Two easy solutions would be to increase the font size on your computer screen or get a pair of computer reading glasses. You can also make sure your computer screen is at eye level, which will reduce the temptation to lean forward.

If you suffer from headaches or neck and backaches from computer work, check your posture and make sure you are sitting upright, with your head aligned on top of your neck.

"You can do something about this poor posture very quickly," says Peper, who recommends people test themselves by scrunching forward and try rotating their head. Until they do that, many have no idea how bad posture contributes to back and neck pain.

"You can exaggerate the position and experience the symptoms. Then when you find yourself doing it, you can become aware and stop," he said.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that 60 percent of students have persistent pain in their neck and shoulders -- often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablets. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

New Spinal Discs Grown from Stem Cells

By Steve Weakley

Scientists have moved a step closer to being able to replace degenerated spinal discs with new ones grown in a laboratory from a patient’s own stem cells.

Spinal discs are soft tissues that cushion the vertebrae and enable our backs to conform and perform the tasks of everyday movement. Over time, the discs can wear out and cause the bones of the spine to rub together and pinch nerves. This disc degeneration is one of the leading causes of back pain.

University of Pennsylvania researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine that they have successfully grown and implanted replacement discs made from the stem cells of goats. The cells were grown in a laboratory in a disc shaped form and then implanted into the necks of goats.

After 8 weeks, MRI’s showed that the replacement discs functioned just as well or better than the goats’ original cervical discs. The implanted discs were left in for 20 weeks and became part of the animals’ own tissue.

Researchers told Medical News Today that this was a major step forward from previous experiments in which they implanted discs into rat tails. Goat discs are more comparable to humans in size, structure and function.

"I think it's really exciting that we have come this far, from the rat tail all the way up to human-sized implants," said co-senior author Harvey Smith, MD, a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  

"Using a true tissue-engineered motion-preserving replacement device is not something we have yet done in orthopaedics. I think it would be a paradigm shift for how we really treat these spinal diseases and how we approach motion sparing reconstruction of joints.”

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Current treatments for degenerative discs include spinal fusion or artificial implants.  Both have limited benefits and usually cannot restore full functionality. Artificial implants also break down and have be replaced.

"The current standard of care does not actually restore the disc, so our hope with this engineered device is to replace it in a biological, functional way and regain full range of motion," said co-senior author Robert Mauck, PhD, a professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery.

"This is a major step, to grow such a large disc in the lab, to get it into the disc space, and then to have it to start integrating with the surrounding native tissue. That's very promising."

The researchers say the next step is longer and more extensive tests on goats, before working on a bioengineered human model.  If those tests are successful, they eventually hope to test the implants in human trials.

"We have every reason to be optimistic, and if it works, we can change the way we think about treating some of these disc diseases," said Smith.

Many Alternative Therapies for Back Pain Not Covered

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has confirmed what many back pain sufferers already know: Public and private health insurance plans often do not cover non-drug alternative pain therapies.

Bloomberg researchers looked at dozens of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance coverage policies for chronic lower back pain and found that while most plans covered physical therapy and chiropractic care, there was little or no coverage for acupuncture, massage or counseling.

"This study reveals an important opportunity for insurers to broaden and standardize their coverage of non-drug pain treatments to encourage their use as safer alternatives to opioids," says senior author Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.  

Alexander and his colleagues examined 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage and 15 major commercial insurer plans that were available in 16 states in 2017.

Most payers covered physical therapy (98%), occupational therapy (96%), and chiropractic care (89%), but coverage was inconsistent for many of the other therapies.

Acupuncture was covered by only five of the 45 insurance plans and only one plan covered therapeutic massage.

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Nine of the Medicaid plans covered steroid injections, but only three covered psychological counseling.

"We were perplexed by the absence of coverage language on psychological interventions," Alexander says. "It's hard to imagine that insurers wouldn't cover that."  

Even for physical therapy, a well-established method for relieving lower back pain, insurance coverage was inconsistent.

"Some plans covered two visits, some six, some 12; some allowed you to refer yourself for treatment, while others required referral by a doctor," Alexander says. "That variation indicates a lack of consensus among insurers regarding what model coverage should be, or a lack of willingness to pay for it.”  

The Bloomberg study is being published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.  It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little consensus on the best way to treat it. A recent series of reviews by an international team of experts in The Lancet medical journal found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments. They found limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

Many Invasive Surgeries No Better Than Placebo

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In an age when doctors are urged not to prescribe opioids, many patients are being told to have surgery or other invasive procedures to treat their chronic pain.

But a systematic review of 25 clinical trials found little evidence that invasive surgeries are more effective than placebo or sham procedures in reducing low back and knee pain. The study was published in the journal Pain Medicine.

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"Our findings raise several questions for clinicians, researchers, and policy-makers. First, can we justify widespread use of these procedures without rigorous testing?" said lead author Wayne Jonas, MD, a Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“Given their high cost and safety concerns, more rigorous studies are required before invasive procedures are routinely used for patients with chronic pain.”

The invasive procedures that were analyzed include arthroscopic, endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries, as well as radiofrequency ablations, laser treatments and other interventions.

In each study, researchers also performed sham or placebo procedures on a control group where they faked the invasive procedure. Patients did not know which intervention (real or sham) they received. Researchers then compared the patients’ pain intensity, disability, health-related quality of life, use of medication, adverse events, and other factors.

They found that reduction in disability did not differ between the two groups three months after the procedures or at six months. Seven of the studies on low back pain and three on knee osteoarthritis showed no difference in pain intensity at six months compared with the sham procedures.

“There is little evidence for the specific efficacy beyond sham for invasive procedures in chronic pain. A moderate amount of evidence does not support the use of invasive procedures as compared with sham procedures for patients with chronic back or knee pain,” said Jonas.

Invasive treatments are being increasingly used as an alternative to opioids. Americans spent an estimated $45 billion on surgery for chronic low back pain and $41 billion on arthroplasty for knee pain in 2014.

Several previous studies have also questioned the value of arthroplasty. Over 850,000 arthroscopic surgeries are performed every year to relieve knee pain in the UK and the United States. But a 2015 study published in the BMJ questioned the evidence behind the surgery and said it provides only “small inconsequential benefit.”

Disabled by the War on Opioids

By Michael Emelio, Guest Columnist

I am 53 years old and have severe disc degeneration spread throughout my spine and scoliosis in my lower back. As if that weren't enough, I've also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

I have been on opioid medication since 2001.  For over a decade the meds helped reduce the pain enough so that I could still work 40 hours a week, including some heavy lifting. But in 2013 the DEA shutdown the doctor I had been with for over 12 years, forcing me to find a new pain management doctor.

The new doctor not only refused to continue the meds that were working for me, but immediately cut my opioids by over 90% without tapering me down at all. My pain increased so much that I couldn't return to work, even for light duty.

When I asked the doctor why he wouldn't continue the prescriptions my previous doctor was giving me, he said and I quote, “Because of the crackdown on pain meds you're not going to find a doctor in this state will give you more than what I'm giving you now." 

Mind you, this was back in 2014, and was still less than the maximum 90mg morphine equivalent dose that the CDC started recommending in 2016. 

Little did I know that was only the beginning of my nightmare. Since back surgery wasn't an option, the doctor told me my only choice was to have epidural steroid injections.

MICHAEL EMELIO

MICHAEL EMELIO

I did some research and had legitimate reservations about the injections, but without being offered any other options and not wanting to be labeled a drug seeker, I reluctantly agreed. I couldn't afford to be out of work much longer.

The injections were administered a month apart. The first series did nothing for my pain and the second one actually increased the pain by over three-fold. This resulted in me becoming completely bedridden 24 hours a day and struggling to complete the most basic daily life functions. I'm not talking about doing laundry and cleaning house. I'm talking about just feeding myself.

This left me unable to do any kind of work whatsoever, let alone return to my regular job of over 7 years, where I was working towards retirement. When I asked the doctor what was I supposed to do now, his response was, “Have you considered applying for disability?"

Unless you've been here, you cannot fathom the level of shock and horror that I felt at that moment, yet alone the level of injustice and outrage. A word that comes to mind is appalled, but that doesn't even begin to describe it. I went from being an able-bodied worker to disabled and bedridden 24 hours a day.  And for no other reason than the War on Opioids!

To be perfectly clear, I didn't take illegal drugs and I never abused, gave away or sold my prescriptions. I passed all my drug tests, never had a record of drug problems, or even a DUI. I didn't even drink alcohol. I did NOTHING to give them any reason whatsoever to take my medications away.

My current doctor is currently weaning me off the last of my opioids, stripping me of the last tiny bit of medication that have any effect on my pain. What little quality of life I have left is about to be taken away completely.

The only thing I can do now is pray that I am able to hold on and not become another suicide statistic after being forced to live in agony day-in and day-out. All because of the barbarically handled, totally blind, and uncompassionate War on Opioids.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against fighting drug abuse and addiction, I'm just against the way it's being fought. Taking these medications away from people who have proven they need and use them responsibly will fail to have any impact whatsoever on the addicts who are abusing them.  It only serves to punish the honest and innocent. Why should I be punished and forced to live a life of pain, misery and indignity when I have done nothing wrong?

With the help of opioids, I was still very active and happy, enjoying things like riding motorcycles, jet skiing, and even paragliding. Although recently becoming single, I had no reason not to hope for eventually finding the right woman and living happily ever after.

But I've been robbed of all of that now. I am bedridden and struggling to survive on nothing more than disability income. My pain has tripled thanks to the unnecessary and unwanted steroid injections, and for no other reason than the fear instilled in my doctor by the DEA and CDC.

And it's still not over. The only thing my doctor is offering now is more of the very same injections that put me here in the first place and robbed me of my life.

What keeps me fighting is the sheer anger and outrage that I have for the injustice of it all. If you are a doctor, DEA agent, politician, or anybody else who is not a chronic pain patient – then take a minute to realize that you are only one car accident, one slip, or one fall away from this happening to you.

STOP THIS MADNESS!

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Michael Emelio lives in Florida.

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.

I Have to Drive 6 Hours for Pain Care

By Bailey Parker, Guest Columnist

I feel so alone and isolated. There have been times I wanted to die, but my 5-year old son keeps me going. I get up every day for him.

About two years after he was born, I had a car wreck. I hit a coyote at 60 mph and ripped the radiator off my car. The doctors told me I had the spine of an 80-year old and needed a double level fusion in my neck.

I was 34 then and in tremendous amounts of pain. But after reading online stories in spine health forums, I was skeptical about the surgery. Everything told me to wait. So I did, for a year. I saw three surgeons and a neurologist. They all told me to have the surgery.

I live in a small city in southwest Colorado. When it comes to opioid pain medication, all the doctors here seem to have taken the stance, “We just don’t do that here.” The nearest city is Albuquerque, New Mexico, which means a 4-hour drive for me across state lines, or a 6-hour drive to Denver over mountain passes.

Before my surgery, one of the doctors of orthopedic medicine prescribed my pain medication. For two months, I was able to work again and was beginning to get back on my feet. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t want to take medication for the rest of my life, but the fusion sounded worse.

The third month in I called for a refill of my medication. They told me no, but wouldn’t say why or give me a follow up exam with the doctor. He was too busy and couldn’t see me for a month. I waited one excruciating month and went to see him, asking what happened.

BAILEY PARKER

BAILEY PARKER

He had looked at my prescription records and saw a prescription for narcotics from another doctor for when I had cystic fibroids on my ovaries. It was not the same pain medication as what he prescribed me, and I didn’t even know they were the same type of medicine.  

Even though I had a broken neck, he did not feel comfortable prescribing to me anymore. His office then took 6 months to get my medical records sent to my primary care doctor. I had to physically go in and yell at them that I was about to have major surgery. This was the first time I felt treated like an addict, but not the last.

I went to my primary care physician and explained what happened with this other doctor. We have a very good relationship. She knows all of my medical history. She handled my pain medication before my surgery but was very clear that she would not do it for an extended period.

I never take more medication than prescribed. I am not an addict. I do everything they tell me. I was walking and doing yoga every day, just as the doctors recommended. I took my vitamins and a fruit shake every day.

After the fusion surgery, things just didn’t feel right. I was in tremendous pain again and this time there was more of it in different places. I told the physician’s assistant at my surgeon’s office and he told me to just get off all the drugs. He said it would help. He told me I would be fine. I wasn’t.

I struggled for another month before I demanded to see the surgeon. He told me I would benefit from OxyContin and gave me a week’s supply. For the first time since my accident, I was able to work and properly care for my son. My depression lifted. But when I called to tell them that I was doing good on the medication, they said it was time to go back to my primary care doctor and any further medication would have to be prescribed by her.

I went to see her, but she still did not feel comfortable handling my care and referred me to a pain clinic 6 hours away. I was in despair, thinking that I had crippled myself for life and would lose my job, my son and my husband. All of these relationships were strained at this point.

The pain clinic helped me get my life back. They are compassionate and good to the people that come through their doors. It’s a common misconception that pain patients want to take medication. We don’t. We just want some of our lives back and pain medication helps us have that.

A year after my fusion, the surgeon met me again. The fusion had failed, and he wanted to do a revision that would be more painful than the first. He also told me he thought my pain might be caused by fibromyalgia. I’ve never been so angry. I have pain because of my broken neck. Pompous arrogant doctor with no aftercare.

Here is my dilemma, I’ve gotten better care in a big city, where they do not treat me like an addict. I’ve gotten my life back. At first, I was able to go there every three months to get my medication, but with the laws changing, they now say I have to go every month. Driving 6 hours both ways with a 5-year-old and a broken neck is hard. But quality of life and pain are great motivators.

My experience has left me with so much anger towards doctors in my area. It seems their Hippocratic oath has been trumped by the opioid crisis and fear of administrative action. I do not tell people about the medication that helps my quality of life for fear of judgement and stigma. Unless they have been through chronic pain, they simply don’t understand.

I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.

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Bailey Parker lives in Colorado.

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.

What Back Pain Sufferers Should Know

By Doug Beall, MD, Guest Columnist

Allow me to describe a common patient referred to my office. Their back pain has been around long enough to be chronic and anti-inflammatory pills no longer dilute the pain.  Good days are when the patient is able to leave the house and painfully make it through eight hours at work; bad days are when the only endurable position is to lay flat at home all day.

Learning to live with the pain is no longer an option, so his physician refers him to my office. Let's pause the story here.

This sequence has been the experience of countless patients suffering from back pain. After months — sometimes years — of what feels like a 10 on the pain scale, these patients are willing to do almost anything to make the pain go away.

By the time they come to the doctor, most have done their research and have already written their own prescription, concluding that invasive surgeries and painkillers are the only options strong enough to alleviate their pain. But how did we get to the point where the all-out attack option seems like the only option?

As a doctor who specializes in treating patients for back pain, here’s what I wish more patients suffering from chronic pain knew.

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When it comes to strong painkillers and increasingly invasive surgeries, bigger is not better. While surgery is the right option for some, the culture of pain management in the United States has produced the myth that the more invasive and aggressive the technique, the more effective it is. This over-reliance on aggressive techniques, especially opioids and invasive surgeries, puts last resorts at the front of the line while ignoring a range of safer and frequently more effective treatments — injections, vertebral augmentation, stem cell therapy or radiofrequency ablation, to name a few.

Simply put, the more aggressive and invasive techniques have not demonstrated that they produce better results. People aren’t automobiles. Our bodies can’t be put back together quickly or without some downside from surgery. While the more invasive repair may be better for your car, when it comes to people, the less invasive the technique, the better the patient recovery will be.

The primary consequence of the bigger is better mentally has produced a dangerous dependence on opioids for treating non-cancer pain and post-surgical pain. Opioids may be necessary for a relatively comfortable recovery after surgery, but normally not for more than four to six weeks. Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that six percent of patients prescribed opioids after surgery become persistent opioid users. Chronic opioid use has ruined countless lives, so any treatment relying on opioids should only be considered a last resort.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that invasive surgeries are effective for patients. As an example, one of the most common pain management procedures is lumbar spinal fusion surgery, which is often used to treat chronic lower back pain. A new study from the medical journal Spine indicates 20 percent of patients undergo another operation within four years of an initial spinal fusion. Patients can only hope they’re not the unlucky one out of five sitting in the doctor’s waiting room who will be back for a second operation.

Pain sufferers should know that the vast majority of their chronic pain could be helped with simple, less invasive procedures without having to make an incision. When patients are referred to my office, I start with the least invasive options before moving on to surgery and more definitive techniques.

Instead of having patients go under the knife and prescribing them opioids, many of my patients suffering from chronic lower back pain have experienced tremendous results with radiofrequency ablation, which uses radiofrequency energy to deactivate a nerve that transmits pain from a patient’s lumbar disc.  This procedure can be done with a needle during an outpatient visit, and it often provides instant relief that can last for years.

Other procedures include epidural steroid injections (ESIs) and vertebral augmentation surgery. Both are minimally invasive options that help relieve acute and chronic pain.

Epidural injections relieve a variety of conditions, including sciatica, herniated discs and spinal stenosis. During an ESI, a surgeon or interventional pain physician injects a local anesthetic and a steroid into the epidural space, providing swift pain relief for the region. While this relief only lasts for a few weeks or months, it provides patients with enough time to continue working on their physical therapy and for the underlying pathology to heal.

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Vertebral augmentation is an injection of a cementing agent into a vertebra in order to stabilize a vertical compression fracture (VCF). VCFs can result in severe deformity and extreme pain, and vertebral augmentation can help fix this injury with minimal complication or risk.

For patients suffering the disabling effects of chronic back pain, it’s important to know there are alternatives to opioids and invasive surgeries; not only radiofrequency ablation, but a whole range of minimally-invasive techniques. In the end, surgery may be necessary — but for many, these other options will prove to be not only safer, but also more effective.

(Editor’s note: For another view on ESI’s and their risks, see Dr. Margaret Aranda’s column, “5 Things to Know About Epidural Steroid Injections.”)

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Dr. Doug Beall is a Fellow of Interventional Pain Practice, a Diplomate of the American Academy of Pain Management and is the Chief of Services at Clinical Radiology of Oklahoma, specializing in interventional musculoskeletal care.

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.

Learning About Back Pain Helps Reduce It

By Steve Weakley

A new study published in JAMA Neurology shows that learning about the neuroscience of pain may help relieve some of it. 

Researchers have long understood that pain sensitivity varies from patient to patient, and there is a complex relationship between the mind and the body that influences how we experience pain. To explore that connection, researchers in Belgium divided 120 patients with chronic back and neck pain into two groups. A control group was treated with commonly recommended physical therapy and exercises.

The second group went through a program of “neuroscience education therapy,” in which they were given a very detailed explanation of what happens to the nervous system during chronic pain. Patients learned how neurons and synapses work, and how pain signals travel through nerve fibers, to the spinal cord and then the brain.

They were also taught the importance of self-care, ergonomics, stretching and fitness.

The patients were then given a series of challenging movements and exercises that gradually became more difficult and painful. They were encouraged to push through their pain, continue exercising and concentrate on functionality, not pain relief.

Treatment in both groups lasted three months, and the patients were re-evaluated after six months and a year. 

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Researchers say patients in the neuroscience therapy group showed markedly more progress than the control group.  They had significant improvement in their disability, a higher pain threshold, improved physical and mental functioning, and 50 percent less self-reported pain than the control group. That improvement continued even after one year.

“These positive effects can be attributed to the content of the experimental treatment as participants learn to put pain into the right perspective, to move regularly, and to be physically active. Consequently, participants probably feel empowered, whereas, previously, they viewed pain as a life-controlling factor,” researchers found.  

“The main message is: Don’t be afraid of the pain,” lead author Anneleen Malfliet told The New York Times. “We know that worrying and giving attention to pain ultimately increases it. Staying active and moving is better than rest when it comes to chronic back and neck pain.”

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide and it is the most often cited reason for missed work in the United States.  More than half of all working Americans experience back pain each year.

Positive Findings for New Osteoarthritis Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pfizer and Eli Lilly have announced positive findings in treating osteoarthritis pain with an experimental non-opioid drug that has a history of safety concerns.  

Tanezumab is a humanized monoclonal antibody that targets nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that increases in the body because of injury, inflammation or chronic pain. Tanezumab binds to NGF and inhibits pain signals from muscles, skin and organs from reaching the brain.

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In the 16-week clinical study, osteoarthritis patients who were given two injections of tanezumab had significant improvement in their pain, physical function and assessment of their symptoms compared to a placebo. Osteoarthritis is a joint disorder that leads to thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage.

“There is a substantial need for innovative new treatment options for osteoarthritis, as many patients are unable to find relief with currently available medicines and continue to suffer,” Ken Verburg of Pfizer Global Product Development said in a statement.

“We are encouraged by these results, which speak to the potential of tanezumab as a non-opioid treatment option for pain reduction and improvement in physical function.”

Preliminary safety data showed that tanezumab was generally well tolerated, with about 1% of patients discontinuing treatment due to adverse events. Rapidly progressive osteoarthritis was observed in about 1.5% tanezumab-treated patients, but none in the placebo arm.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted “fast track” designation to tanezumab last year to help speed its development as a new treatment for osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain.

Ironically, it was the FDA that slowed the development of NGF inhibitors in 2010 after Pfizer reported some osteoarthritis patients receiving tanezumab experienced worsening of their disease and needed joint replacements. Another safety issue arose in 2012 because the drug caused “adverse changes in the sympathetic nervous system of mature animals.”  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

“We look forward to continuing to advance tanezumab in our ongoing global Phase 3 development program, which includes six studies in approximately 7,000 patients with osteoarthritis, chronic low back pain and cancer pain,” said Christi Shaw, senior vice president of Eli Lilly. In studies to date, tanezumab has not demonstrated a risk of addiction, misuse or dependence.

Regeneron recently halted high-dose trials of fasinumab, another NGF inhibitor, because the risk of harm outweighed the benefits of the drug. There is some concern that NGF antibodies work too well and encourage osteoarthritis patients to become more active, which accelerates joint deterioration.