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Posted on 02-08-2012

In 2010, researchers reviewed records from 1,450 patients, average age was 39 years old who had no additional health problems, in the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation database from 1999 through 2006, who had diagnoses of disc degeneration, disc herniation or radiculopathy, a nerve condition that causes tingling and weakness of the limbs. Half of the patients had surgery to fuse two or more vertebrae in the hopes of curing low back pain. The other half had no surgery, even though they had comparable diagnoses.


After two years, only 26 percent of those who had surgery returned to work compared to 67 percent of patients who did not have surgery. Of the lumbar fusion subjects, 36 percent had complications and the reoperation rate was 27 percent for surgical patients. Permanent disability rates were 11 percent for cases and 2 percent for non-operative controls. In what might be the most troubling finding, researchers determined that there was a 41 percent increase in the use of painkillers, with 76 percent of cases continuing opioid use after surgery. Seventeen surgical patients died by the end of the study.  An additional 11 injured workers died during this study for a total number of deaths equaling 27 out of the 1,450 injured workers chosen for this review.

The study provides clear evidence that for many patients, fusion surgeries designed to alleviate pain from degenerating discs do not work, according to the study's lead author, Dr. Trang Nguyen, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati to work status."41 College of Medicine. His study concluded: "Lumbar fusion for the diagnoses of disc degeneration, disc herniation, and/or radiculopathy in a Workers' Compensation setting is associated with significant increase in disability, opiate use, prolonged work loss, and poor return.

Commenting on spine surgery, Nguyen said, "The outcomes of this procedure for degenerative disc disease and disc herniation make it an unfortunate treatment choice." According to the editors of The Back Letter, a newsletter from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., "This form of surgery in workers' compensation subjects appears to be a gamble at best." 

~McMichael

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