Are Sit-Stand Desks Overrated?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

You’ve probably seen commercials touting the health benefits of sit-stand desks. Experts say being able to stand occasionally – instead of sitting at an office desk all day -- helps prevent back pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other chronic health conditions.

There may be some truth to that, but some of the health claims range from silly to the absurd.

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking. We are sitting ourselves to death,” James Levine, MD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, told the Los Angeles Times. “The chair is out to kill us.”

Is sitting really that dangerous? It is if you believe Australian researchers, who came to the eye-opening conclusion that sitting for one hour reduces life expectancy by 22 minutes. Their study was about people who watch a lot of television, but it is often cited by sit-stand desk manufacturers.

One desk manufacturer funded a study — which is mysteriously being promoted by the CDC — that looked into the psychological benefits of sit-stand desks. The study found that standing more often at work will not only relieve back pain, but make you feel healthier, happier and improve your self-esteem.

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Minimal Health Benefits

Just how reliable is this industry-promoted research?

“There has been a great deal of scientific research about sit-stand desks in the past few years, but we have only scratched the surface of this topic,” says April Chambers, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. “I wanted to gather what we know so far and figure out the next steps for how can we use these desks to better benefit people in the workplace.”

Chambers and her colleagues reviewed 53 studies on sit-stand desks and published their findings in the journal Applied Ergonomics. Their research focused on the impact of the desks on behavior, physiology, psychology, work performance, discomfort and posture.

“The study found only minimal impacts on any of those areas, the strongest being changes in behavior and discomfort,” said co-author Nancy Baker, ScD, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Tufts University.

“There are health benefits to using sit-stand desks, such as a small decrease in blood pressure or low back pain relief, but people simply are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with these devices,” added Chambers.

One of the biggest flaws in current studies is that most were done with young and healthy subjects who were asked to use the desk for a week or month at most. Researchers say it would be beneficial to perform longer studies with middle-aged or overweight workers to get a more accurate measure of the desks’ impact on cardiovascular health and weight loss.

Further study is also needed on desk height, monitor height, the amount of time standing, and the use of anti-fatigue floor mats to soften the blow of so much standing. 

“There are basic ergonomic concepts that seem to be overlooked,” said Chambers. “Many workers receive sit-stand desks and start using them without direction. I think proper usage will differ from person to person, and as we gather more research, we will be better able to suggest dosage for a variety of workers.”

Sit-stand desks range in price from inexpensive models for $179 to nearly $1,000 for motorized adjustable desks that come with settings for different users.

If you’re thinking of buying a sit-stand desk, a good place to start your research is online. In the YouTube video below, David Zhang rates some of desks he’s tried over the past year. David likes having a standing desk, but has doubts about their health benefits and says the desks do not replace the need for a good old-fashioned office chair.

Risky Combination: Opioids and Gabapentin

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Opioid medication significantly reduces low back pain, but opioids should not be used in combination with gabapentin (Neurontin) because of their limited effectiveness and potential for abuse, according to the authors of a small new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

"In these days, when we are focusing on reduction of opioids due to opioid crisis in the U.S., gabapentin could be an important part of multimodal non-opioid pain management," N. Nick Knezevic, MD, of the University of Illinois in Chicago told MedPage Today. "However, it should not be given to all patients since the effectiveness in chronic pain patients, particularly in those with low back pain, is limited."

KAISER HEALTH NEWS

KAISER HEALTH NEWS

In a retrospective study, Knezevic and his colleagues looked at 156 patients with low back pain; half of whom were treated with opioids alone and the other half with a combination of opioids and gabapentin.

“According to our study, the combination of gabapentin with opioids was not statistically superior in providing pain relief, in contrast to opioids alone, in patients with chronic pain. Our results are in line with recent guidelines for low back pain treatment that reflect the need to assess the recommendation of gabapentinoids for chronic pain in patients already taking opiods to mitigate risk factors of abuse and overdose,” researchers found.

Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant that was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy, but is now widely prescribed for a variety of chronic pain conditions. Its use in primary care as a treatment for chronic back and neck pain has risen by 535% in the last decade, despite little evidence of its effectiveness.

"The fact that anticonvulsants are often advertised to be effective for 'nerve pain' may mislead the prescriber to assume efficacy for low back pain or sciatica," Oliver Enke, MD, of the University of Sydney, told MedPage.

A 2018 study by Australian researchers found that gabapentinoids did not reduce back pain or disability and often had side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness and nausea. Another recent study found that combining gabapentin with opioid medication significantly raises the risk of dying from an overdose than opioid use alone.

There have been increasing reports of gabapentin being abused by drug addicts, who have learned they can use the medications to heighten the high from heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

The CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids, without saying a word about its potential for abuse or side effects.

A 2017 commentary in the The New England Journal of Medicine warned that gabapentinoids -- a class of nerve medication that includes both gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica) -- are being overprescribed.

"We believe… that gabapentinoids are being prescribed excessively — partly in response to the opioid epidemic,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD. “We suspect that clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids have lowered their threshold for prescribing gabapentinoids to patients with various types of acute, subacute, and chronic noncancer pain."

Laser Spine Institute Shuts Down

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Laser Spine Institute, which once ran a nationwide chain of surgery centers that specialized in “minimally invasive” spinal procedures, has abruptly ceased operations due to financial problems.

The company had four remaining surgery centers in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Scottsdale and Tampa, Florida, where it is headquartered. It recently closed three other surgery centers in an effort to control costs and restructure.

Despite “significant cost saving” in recent months, Laser Spine Institute said in a new release that it was “unable to attract the necessary financing” to continue operating while it sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. About 600 employees are affected.

"My heart goes out to our great, dedicated staff who have stuck with us through all of our adversity and worked so tirelessly to help us right the ship," said Jake Brace, Laser Spine Institute's CEO, who was brought in last year to help restructure the company.

The company said it would contact patients slated for surgery and those in post-operative care and refer them to other medical facilities in their area.

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Laser Spine Institute treated patients with neck and back pain caused by spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, bone spurs, herniated discs, sciatica and other chronic conditions.

Although it claimed to have 98% patient satisfaction rate, the company was hit with dozens of malpractice lawsuits, including one by superstar wrestler Hulk Hogan, who claimed its treatments were ineffective and cost him $50 million in lost revenue. Hogan reportedly settled out of court for $10 million.

Last year the family of a Pennsylvania woman who died hours after being discharged from a Laser Spine Institute surgery center was awarded $20 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.

A competing surgery center also sued Laser Spine Institute for offering illegal incentives to patients, such as paying for their airfare and hotel expenses, which is prohibited under Medicare guidelines. Nine surgeons told Bloomberg Businessweek that the company was doing spinal surgeries that were often unnecessary or inappropriate.

New Non-Opioid Drug Effective in Treating Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Pfizer and Eli Lilly have announced positive results from a large Phase 3 study evaluating an experimental non-opioid pain reliever as a treatment for chronic low back pain.

Patients receiving 10 mg injections of tanezumab showed statistically significant improvement in back pain at 16 weeks compared to placebo. A lower dose of tanezumab 5 mg was not as effective. Over 1,800 people with chronic low back pain in North America, Europe and Asia participated in the study.

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.

"This study demonstrates the potential of tanezumab to treat individuals suffering from moderate-to-severe chronic low back pain who have been unable to achieve relief with currently available medicines," said Ken Verburg, Pfizer’s tanezumab development team leader.

“This is one of the longest studies conducted to date in chronic low back pain. We look forward to further analyzing these results, and believe the data from this study will support our planned future global regulatory submissions in chronic low back pain."

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Pizer and Eli Lilly have also reported positive findings in evaluating tanezumab for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The Food and Drug Administration granted “fast track” designation to tanezumab in 2017 to help speed its development.

Tanezumab has a history of safety concerns. Clinical studies were halted in 2010 after Pfizer reported some osteoarthritis patients receiving the drug had worse symptoms and needed joint replacement surgery. Another safety issue arose in 2012 when tanezumab caused adverse changes in the nervous system of animals.  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

In the current study, rapidly progressive osteoarthritis (RPOA) was observed in 1.4 percent of patients receiving tanezumab and 0.1 percent of patients in the other treatment groups. Joint fractures and total joint replacements were experienced in 0.4 percent and 0.7 percent of tanezumab-treated patients, respectively, while none were observed in the other treatment groups.

In addition to back pain, the ongoing Phase 3 program for tanezumab includes studies in osteoarthritis pain and cancer pain due to bone metastases.

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.