Novel technique may aid doctors in identifying the source of persistent back pain

Jun 8 2011
Individuals with chronic back pain who fail to obtain relief from medications or physical therapy often turn to spine surgery for help. It can therefore be frustrating if pain symptoms return following a surgical intervention.

Given the fact that post-operative back pain may stem from several different sources, it is important for doctors to have the right tools to properly identify the reason and provide effective follow-up pain management.

Now, thanks to research conducted by scientists from Stanford University and Hospital Mae de Deus in Porto Alegre, Brazil, they may have another way to precisely pinpoint sources of chronic back pain.

During the Society of Nuclear Medicine's 58th Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, the team presented a PET/CT molecular imaging procedure that uses functional and anatomical information, analyzes it and focuses on the site of vertebral pathology. This may offer a more accurate diagnosis of what is causing the pain in patients who received bone implants or grafts for conditions such as degenerative disc disease or herniated disc.

Using this method, "we can pinpoint the exact screw or rod that [is] loose or failing," says Andrew Quon, MD, assistant professor of radiology and chief of clinical PET/CT for the molecular imaging program at Stanford University.

He adds that this may help doctors and patients choose the proper follow up treatment and possibly avoid costly and unnecessary replacement surgeries.

Although the new tool may prove to be a valuable diagnostic addition, the underlying problem of post-operative pain strengthens the argument in favor of alternative approaches such as endoscopic spine surgeries.

Often, these types of procedures require only minimal incisions, which reduces scarring, blood loss, tissue trauma and infection risk. Numerous studies have shown that endoscopic surgery patients report little to no pain, and their recovery time is typically much faster than after open-back surgery.

Ultimately, however, the decision as to which treatment is best for each individual patient should rest with appropriately trained physician.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, approximately 4.6 million Americans will need back surgery at some point in their lives.