Common back pain therapy turns deadly

Back pain is the most common cause of pain and disability in working Americans.

The good news is, there are many safe and effective treatments. As I said last week– just standing up regularly throughout the day can really make a difference.

But in the meantime, there are two common treatments for lower back pain that you should avoid at all costs.

I always warn everyone about back surgery. It’s rarely helpful for chronic lower back pain. So it should be your last resort–considered only if all else has failed.

But there’s another common treatment for back and neck pain–and other joint pains–that you should also avoid. And if you doctor recommends it for your neck or lower back pain, head for the hills while you still can.

I’m talking about steroid injections.

Last year, steroid injections for neck and back pain resulted in an outbreak of fungal infections of the brain and spinal cord. This treatment killed dozens and sickened hundreds of patients around the country. It also led to the resignations of two state health commissioners. They were in charge of regulating the compounding pharmacies that formulate the steroid injections. It was ultimately their job to oversee the safe preparation of these “pain killers.”

Remember, back pain is not a fatal condition. But it turned deadly through an inappropriate treatment.

The practitioners administered the injections using supposedly sterile bottles of steroids. But it turns out the bottles were so contaminated, you could see with the naked eye white mold floating in some vials.

Yes, the problems began in one poorly controlled lab. But there was also a nationwide network of unwitting accomplices. And they were all motivated by profit.

Doctors at pain clinics across the country overprescribed these steroid injections. Yet studies had never proven that these injections were effective for these types of patients.

In many cases, the patients wanted a quick fix for their aches and pains. They didn’t want to take the time and trouble to pursue safe and effective therapy. In fact, one victim said she just wanted a steroid injection to “prevent” pain before going on a trip to the cobblestoned streets of old Europe. And she found a doctor willing to prescribe it.

Let me be clear…the idea of giving a steroid injection to “prevent” back pain is nowhere in medical books. The doctor who agreed to this course of action should have known better. Yet it happened. And I’m sure it wasn’t the first time.

Unfortunately, perverse financial incentives exist for administering steroid pain injections. And Medicare–namely the U.S. taxpayer–foots a huge part of the bill. In the state of Washington, the use of these injections increased 13 percent over three years. Some patients get these injections on a monthly basis. And a single spinal injection can run anywhere from $600 to $2,500. This costs the state a whopping $56 million per year.

And to make matters worse, these injections haven’t proven very effective for most people anyway.

In rare, carefully selected cases, an injection of safe, sterile steroids may help stave off back surgery. This may be the case if you have a herniated disc, for example. But that won’t help if you get a contaminated injection.

If you have chronic lower back pain, though, these injections are inappropriate at best. But in some pain clinics, the only requirement to get an injection is that you walked in the door.

The only good thing: if you were able to walk in, you can still walk back out.