Despite Practice Guidelines for Back Pain, Prescriptions for Narcotics Rise While Those for NSAIDs Fall

Medical practice guidelines are voluntary. Sometimes, this leads to clearly dysfunctional outcomes.

This interview with the author of a new article in JAMA Internal Medicine underscores the conclusions reached in the 2010 study by Bishop and colleagues at the National Spine Center in Canada, published in Spine Journal, which found management of low by pain by primary care medical physicians (PCPs) to be highly “guideline-discordant” with regard to medications. (Bishop’s article also found that for low back pain, guideline-based care that includes spinal manipulation by chiropractors is significantly more effective than usual care by PCPs).

The new JAMA Internal Medicine article’s lead author is John N. Mafi, MD, chief medical resident and fellow in general medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston:

We saw a decline in use of NSAIDs that was discordant with the guidelines. The guidelines recommend it as a first-line treatment. What we are seeing instead is a rise in narcotic prescriptions. The guidelines are cautious about narcotics and say to be cautious and recommend them only as second- or third-line therapies.

There is also discordance between the guidelines and physician use of imaging. In patients with new-onset back pain, ordering an MRI or CT scan is not indicated in most cases. Finally, we saw a rise in referrals to specialists, though primary care clinicians are usually able to manage patients with routine cases of back pain themselves with minimal treatment.

news@JAMA: What do you think is driving physicians to pursue these more aggressive treatment approaches?

Dr Mafi: We are a society that demands instant solutions, but back pain doesn’t play by these rules. It takes time, and unfortunately, the fancier treatments haven’t been shown to decrease patient’s pain or increase their quality of life. That’s why we have to rely on the less-is-more approach.

news@JAMA: What do you think is driving the shift from NSAIDs to narcotics?

Dr Mafi: It is in part patient expectations and a sentiment that emerged in the 1990s physicians weren’t paying enough attention to patient pain. The Joint Commission made pain the fifth vital sign. In response, there has been an overcorrection and now narcotics are reached for first. Since that time, there has been a 300% increase in narcotic prescriptions and rise in narcotic overdoses and deaths. In 2008 almost 15000 people died—more than for cocaine and heroin overdoses combined. There are huge public health implications.

References:

1. Mafi JN, McCarthy EP, Davis RB, Landon BE. WOrsening trends in the management and treatment of back pain. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013 (epub before print).

2. Bishop PB, Quon JA, Fisher CG, Dvorak MFS. The Chiropractic Hospital-based Interventions Research Outcomes (CHIRO) Study: a randomized controlled trial on the effectiveness of clinical practice guidelines in the medical and chiropractic management of patients with acute mechanical low back pain. The Spine Journal. 2010;10(12):1055-1064.

Drug Company Corruption, Pfizer Edition

The level of pharmaceutical company corruption is breathtaking.

A research director for Pfizer was positively buoyant after reading that an important medical conference had just featured a study claiming that the new arthritis drug Celebrex was safer on the stomach than more established drugs.

“They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker,” he wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

The truth was that Celebrex was no better at protecting the stomach from serious complications than other drugs. It appeared that way only because Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole thing.

The companies had a lot riding on the outcome of the study, given that Celebrex’s effect on the stomach was its principal selling point. Earlier studies had shown it was no better at relieving pain than common drugs — like ibuprofen — already on the market.

 

Interesting Findings But at What Cost? How Massage Heals Sore Muscles

This study is revealing on more than one level.

First, it clearly documents for the first time that a specific anti-inflammatory process is triggered by massage, involving suppression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and stimulation of the mitochondria, which play a role in cellular repair. For the researchers and the New York Times writer reporting the story, that’s the bottom line.

But after reading it through twice, I find myself appalled at the protocol they used. Taking muscle biopsies on healthy people in order to understand a bodiliy mechanism goes against the grain for me. In essence, what’s being done is to intentionally injure the body in order to understand how it responds to injury. From my perspective, it’s a strange set of bioethics that considers this par for the course. I don’t like this when it’s done to animals and I don’t like it any better when it’s done to consenting humans.

Tiffany Field of the University of Miami Medical School, who is quoted in the article, has for decades been the acknowledged leader in massage research. She’s quite happy with the findings. Much as I would like to be, I find the method through which they were gained to override the benefits they represent.

Their experiment required having people exercise to exhaustion and undergo five incisions in their legs in order to obtain muscle tissue for analysis. Despite the hurdles, the scientists still managed to find 11 brave young male volunteers. The study was published in the Feb. 1 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

On a first visit, they biopsied one leg of each subject at rest. At a second session, they had them vigorously exercise on a stationary bicycle for more than an hour until they could go no further. Then they massaged one thigh of each subject for 10 minutes, leaving the other to recover on its own. Immediately after the massage, they biopsied the thigh muscle in each leg again. After allowing another two-and-a-half hours of rest, they did a third biopsy to track the process of muscle injury and repair.

Vigorous exercise causes tiny tears in muscle fibers, leading to an immune reaction — inflammation — as the body gets to work repairing the injured cells. So the researchers screened the tissue from the massaged and unmassaged legs to compare their repair processes, and find out what difference massage would make.

They found that massage reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair. “The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.