Forum reviews progress in chronic back pain research, treatments

Aug 30 2011
The number of Americans complaining of lower back pain and experiencing significant disability as a result of the condition continues to grow.

In fact, estimates suggest that some 80 percent of U.S. residents develop this health problem at some point in their lives. Already, lower back pain is the second most common reason to visit a physician for a chronic condition and the fifth most common cause for hospitalization among Americans, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Moreover, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that surgeons currently perform more spine procedures than any other surgery type.

In view of these findings, physicians and researchers across the U.S. have been studying trends in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes, and are periodically meeting to share their knowledge in the hopes of furthering the field of orthopedic medicine.

Recently, the 10th International Forum on Primary Care Research on Low Back Pain brought together these experts to discuss the troubling increase in the number of people who experience disabling back pain as well as a variety of clinical outcomes in back pain patients.

Other important issues that were addressed included early screening for risk factors, the use of alternative approaches to treating the condition and avoiding unnecessary care.

The latter two topics have begun to gain traction in the medical community in recent years. Although surgery is often an effective way to alleviate the pain, this is not always the case, and some patients are left with more discomfort after a procedure than before it. Moreover, open back surgery is traumatic to surrounding tissues and muscles, necessitating long recovery periods and contributing to a diminished quality of life. Taken together, these factors point to a high cost of surgery not only in terms of personal well-being, but also economically, as spinal surgery patients often need to take extensive time off work.

Spiraling healthcare costs are another reason why surgery is increasingly recommended as a last case scenario after conservative treatments fail.

By contrast, non-medical approaches such as physical therapy, acupuncture, lifestyle changes, limited bed rest, icing or hot compresses have been shown to provide significant relief to many individuals, especially those whose back pain problems started fairly recently. These therapies also have the benefit of being much cheaper than a surgical intervention.

For this reason, healthcare providers stress the importance of early diagnosis and treatment before a back condition progresses to the point where it is time-consuming and expensive to cure.