Chronic back or neck pain: a complication of poor management of the acute pain?

January 12, 2011

This past weekend, I made a presentation to a group of 20 or more spine surgeons on the topic of “Improving Your Surgical Outcomes With Better Patient Selection”.  This was at the New England Spine Study Group meeting in Springfield, MA.  That’s also the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame where our meeting was actually held, in their lovely auditorium.  After the meeting adjourned, I had the afternoon to tour the H. of F., which was great fun for this long-time basketball fan.

My 30-min. presentation focused on the rationale and benefit of utilizing a special form of clinical evaluation of low back and neck pain patients developed by Robin McKenzie and often referred to as “Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy” (MDT).  My intent was to make the case for incorporating that assessment somewhere along the care pathway leading up to the surgeon’s decision.  Happily, rather than focusing on the potential loss of surgical cases, surgeons instead expressed their appropriate concerns about not wanting to perform unnecessary surgery.

You can learn more about those MDT methods in some of my other postings and in my books, found at www.selfcarefirst.com.

I told them about four published studies (see references below) that all document that this form of assessment can identify patients who would otherwise have undergone unnecessary surgery if not provided the opportunity to identify that their condition could still recover using non-surgical care.  Whether this form of evaluation is offered at the fairly late point of surgical decision-making, or much earlier in a patient’s care, it is extremely important for both recovery and cost outcomes.

You see, in each of those pre-surgical studies, as many as 52% of patients were able to rapidly diminish and eliminate their own pain, and thereby avoid surgery. One study reported that just over half of the individuals with full sciatica and neurologic deficits were able to eliminate all their pain themselves within 2-5 days after their MDT evaluation was finally performed just prior to being scheduled for surgery.  They eliminated their pain using only some simple “disc-correcting” exercises.

In an earlier blog posting, you can also read about a friend of mine who was scheduled for surgery when finally provided the opportunity to be evaluated with MDT principles.  His response during the initial evaluation was very encouraging and he consequently cancelled his scheduled surgery and was able to completely recover using some simple exercises and other self-care strategies.  He only wished his family physician, or anyone else for that matter, had referred him for that evaluation many months before when he would have recovered even more quickly but, most importantly, he would have avoided all those months of pain and disability, along with all that unnecessary cost to his health plan.

Such rapidly reversible cases are especially common in those whose back or neck pain is of recent onset, generally referred to as “acute”.  Studies report that 70-89% of acute back and neck pain patients have this rapidly reversible kind of condition that can only be identified by using this form of MDT evaluation.  Unfortunately, whenever this assessment is delayed, many of these individuals’ pain becomes chronic and that percentage whose pain is rapidly reversible drops to 45-55%.  Even though that’s still a sizable percentage of chronic pain that remains rapidly reversible, it also means that many back conditions lose their ability to rapidly reverse that they had when they were acute.  This sizable subgroup of patients has lost its window of opportunity to rapidly reverse the underlying painful condition before it deteriorated and became irreversible.  The solution to their problem, if there still is one, is often much more complex, sometimes even requiring surgery that could have been prevented.  For so many, an early assessment using MDT methods avoids so much pain, disability and cost.

One of the spine surgeons who heard my presentation caught the importance of educating family physicians about the value and importance of providing this assessment early for their back and neck pain patients.  He expressed interest in developing an educational effort for the family physicians in his community.

I believe there will be a point in the next few years when the standard of care for acute and subacute back and neck pain will become the provision of this special form of assessment.  The prevalence data speaks clearly that, if this assessment is not implemented in time, patients with either acute back or neck pain can lose that window of opportunity, finding themselves instead on a slippery slope, in danger of sliding into long-term (chronic) pain at considerable expense to themselves, to society, and to employers who are paying the tab.

Unfortunately, most family physicians remain unfamiliar with MDT and all its benefits to them and their patients.  All the scientific studies that validate MDT have been published in spine care-related journals that are unread my family physicians.  We need to establish educational opportunities to influence their education on this topic.  One way I’ve attempted to help is by writing two books entitled “Rapidly Reversible Low Back Pain” and “Solving the Mystery”.  Family physicians who have read them have found them extremely enlightening.

Some hospital and physician networks have expressed interest in educating their primary care docs in order to improve both the quality and the cost of spine care in their communities.  That is an excellent step and we need expand that to a much broader scale across the family medicine practicing and academic profession, as well as within the curriculum of their training programs.

Please leave comments and your input regarding ways to deliver this education so we can substantially halt the flow of acute to chronic back or neck pain.  You may visit www.selfcarefirst.com for more information.

1. Donelson R, Aprill C, Medcalf R, Grant W. A prospective study of centralization of lumbar and referred pain: A predictor of symptomatic discs and anular competence. Spine. 1997;22(10):1115-22.

2. Kopp J, Alexander A, Turocy R, Levrini M, Lichtman D. The use of lumbar extension in the evaluation and treatment of patients with acute herniated nucleus pulposus, a preliminary report. Clinical Orthopedics. 1986;202:211-8.

3. Laslett M, Öberg B, Aprill C, McDonald B. Centralization as a predictor of provocation discography results in chronic low back pain, and the influence of disability and distress on diagnostic power. The Spine Journal. 2005;5:370-80.

4. Rasmussen C, Nielsen G, Hansen V, Jensen O, Schioettz-Christensen B. Rates of lumbar disc surgery before and after implementation of multidisciplinary nonsurgical spine clinics. Spine. 2005;30:2469-73.

Dr. Ron

Ronald Donelson, MD, MS

President
SelfCare First, LLC
Blog: blog.selfcarefirst.com

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