Vertebroplasty: Another Expensive Medical Fad?

Vertebroplasty is a popular surgical technique for treating patients who suffer “crush” fractures of their vertebrae due to osteoporosis, the loss of bone mass that often comes with old age. Two newly published studies suggest that this procedure is going the way of other medical “fads” that showed early promise but failed to show a real benefit after extensive testing.

Both new studies were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2009, and they found that the surgery was no better than doing nothing at relieving the patients’ symptoms. Here is how one put it into perspective for an online publication, Medscape Neurology.

Lead investigator of the second trial, Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, from Monash University in Malvern, Australia, raised similar concerns to Medscape Neurology. “There have been numerous examples of treatments that have looked promising in noncomparative studies but have subsequently been shown to be no better than placebo, a sham procedure, or standard care.”

Dr. Buchbinder cites arthroscopy for osteoarthritis of the knee, bone marrow transplantation for breast cancer, embryonic neurons for severe Parkinson’s disease, and from her own work, shock-wave therapy for plantar fasciitis. She suggests that each of these looked promising early on, but didn’t do well after rigorous study.

It had previously been argued that performing a randomized placebo-controlledtrial of vertebroplasty is unnecessary and unethical in light of the published results of numerous studies that suggest a benefit. But Dr. Buchbinder said that the take-home message from her trial is that vertebroplasty was no better than a sham procedure for improving pain, function, and quality of life after an osteoporotic spinal fracture.

“Both treatment groups improved by about the same amount,” she said. “In view of the known potential adverse effects and no benefit, vertebroplasty should not be used in clinical practice.”

The bottom line for patients is that this is just another in a long string of popular medical innovations that failed to pan out, so wise patients should be wary about undergoing any new-fangled treatment before it is of proven benefit.

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