Use of costly back pain treatment on the rise

Local News

Back pain that began dogging Danielle McCauley in 2004 hit a low point during a trip to Florida.

“All of my visions of walking on the beach didn’t happen, I couldn’t walk,” McCauley said.

Millions of Americans share a similar story.

80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their life, which means treating back pain accounts for a large portion of health care services.

According to a recent Excellus BlueCross BlueShield report, that portion isn’t just large; it’s growing.

“The services are trending and they’re changing and they’re increasing,” said Dr. Jamie Kerr, chief medical officer for BCBS.

For example, the number of surgeries for back pain in upstate New York jumped 10% from 2010 to 2013 and there was a 14% increase in the number spine patients who were prescribed medication within the first six weeks of diagnosis in the same time frame.

Kerr says, in total, back pain treatment now costs more than $900 million every year.

BCBS is now supporting a physician-led campaign called Choosing Wisely, which is trying to prevent “wasteful or unnecessary medical tests, treatments and procedures.”

According to the Choosing Wisely, the problem partly rests with doctors who often receive financial incentives to provide more costly tests and treatments, but those with the campaign also blame the patients who consistently demand a quick fix.

“We have a tendency to look for the magic bullet for things like lower back pain and there often is not a magic bullet, just as there isn’t for diabetes or heart failure,” said Dr. John Markman, a spine expert with URMC.

Markman says doctors and patients are being encouraged to consider more conservative treatment before moving to surgery and opiates.

“I think physical therapy is taking a more prominent role, but I also think we’re taking an approach that encourages self-efficacy,” Markman said.

This could include everything from meditation to walking.

Walking is what was recommended for McCauley after she turned to Markman and his team.

After two surgeries and numerous disappointments, McCauley began slowly.

“Then it got to the point I was taking less and less of the pain medication and I’m up to walking three to five miles a day,” she said.

Not everyone improves so  dramatically and many people do need surgery and powerful pain medication, but as McCauley’s story demonstrates, pain relief might simply require a healthy dose of perseverance.

To learn more information about the Choosing Wisely campaign, go to

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