Surgery for Back Pain: Less Is More

Nearly every week, I hear about a patient who had surgery to relieve terrible chronic back pain and ended up far worse off than before. One of the biggest problems is that money motivates surgeons to talk patients into much bigger and more complex operations than they really need — and then those surgeries result in predictable complications.

The greed allegation sounds a bit harsh, but it comes straight from the top: The Journal of the American Medical Association, in an editorial by a leading Stanford orthopedic surgeon, Eugene Carragee, and in a study carried out by a group of doctors at Oregon Health and Science University led by Dr. Richard Deyo.

The Oregon study found that the rate of complex surgeries for back pain in Medicare patients jumped by 15-fold over a recent five-year period, but there was nothing in the patient population — like increasingly complicated back deformities — to justify the increase.

Joanne Silberner of NPR reported:

Deyo says there’s no reason to think people suddenly started developing the spinal deformities that justify the complex surgeries. He offers several possibilities for the upswing. “Many surgeons genuinely believe that the more invasive procedures offer some benefits,” he says. “But certainly there are important financial incentives at play as well.” Surgical fees for simple decompressions are about $600 to $1,000. The complex surgeries earn surgeons as much as 10 times more. He says another possible factor is the tendency for both doctors and patients to go for a new, more expensive approach just because it sounds better.

The problem is that the more complex surgeries carry at least double the risk of a bad outcome, according to the Deyo study.

Most back pain that isn’t relieved effectively with medicines or other non-surgical therapies is caused by disk herniation or spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is growth of bone near a nerve coming out of the spinal cord which presses on the nerve root and causes pain to radiate down a leg. The vast majority of patients who need back surgery because of spinal stenosis can be benefited from a fairly simple lumbar decompression. This involves removing bone, ligament and facet joint material which is compressing the nerve root. This operation has a high degree of success as it’s been developed over the last 20 years.

According to Dr. Carragee’s editorial, if the patient also has some deformity of the spine — front to back or side to side — the simple lumbar decompression can result in spine instability with increased deformity, so those patients might need a fusion where adjacent vertebrae are fixed together with bone grafts. But even here, simpler techniques get just as good results than more complex procedures that add metal or other instrumentation into the back.

A very small minority of patients, says Dr. Carragee, have spines that are so collapsed and twisted that the spine is unbalanced and tilted forward and the patient has severe pain and poor quality of life. These are the patients who might qualify for the complex surgeries now being done so commonly. Techniques have improved in the last ten years, but the surgeries in these patients still carry a very high complication rate — 30 to 40 percent. And a lot more patients are getting the complex, multi-level surgeries than is warranted by the medical evidence, according to Dr. Carragee and other researchers.

Consumer Reports has rated spinal surgery as No. 1 on a list of overused tests and treatments.

As quoted by NPR, Dr. Deyo said he would like his study to alter the practice of medicine. “The effect I would hope it would have is to have surgeons and patients choose the least invasive procedure that would accomplish the surgical aim,” he says. But he’s pessimistic about it, unless there’s a change in the financial incentives.

This is yet another area of medicine where it pays for patients to be skeptical and to get multiple opinions. It fits our natural instincts to think that bigger and more elaborate surgeries have a higher likelihood of success, but the human body proves over and over that it prefers minimal interventions.

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