The Rising Costs of Back Pain Treatments

Back and neck pain problems costs continue to rise. The most recent figures peg the costs in the neighborhood of $100 billion a year - close to the annual estimates of treating cancer. Researchers at University of Washington say costs are driven by more being spent on prescription drugs, better diagnostic tests and more outpatient visits, as well as greater patient demand for treatment and increased use of spinal fusion surgery.

In the study, researchers analyzed data from 1997 to 2005 from a nationally representative survey of patient health costs and health status. They found that people with back and neck problems on average spent $4,700 in 1997 on health costs, compared with the average $2,700 spent for people without back problems.

These figures rose in 2005 to over $6,000, compared to only 3,500 for people without spine problems. Additionally, the number of spine patients reporting physical, social, and work limitations, rose from 20 percent in 1997 to nearly 25 percent in 2005.

The researchers support several recent studies that have shown some patients who decide against surgery for back pain do as well as those who have surgery. The study reflects the increasing need for alternative spine treatments with proven benefits.

Another research project from the University of North Carolina showed that the rate of “reported” back pain has more than doubled in that state since the early 1990s -- a statistic the authors say might reflect what's happening in the country as a whole.

One reason for the rise in costs seems to be, in part, that patients are demanding more services. That the “grin and bear it” attitude of previous generations is changing – that as people become aware of different options they are seeking out treatment.

The study showed that only 3.9 percent of North Carolina residents surveyed in 1992 said that they had debilitating, chronic back pain. By 2006 the number had risen to 10.2 per cent.

Among people reporting ongoing, serious low back pain in 1992, about 73 percent said they had seen a physician, physical therapist or chiropractor at least once during the past year. In 2006, 84 percent said they had done so.

Though this research was done in the mid 2000's, all signs are that the numbers are increasing, as more physicians and alternative healthcare providers compete for the growing market of patients seeking relief.

Another study reported in The  Journal of the American Medical Association also points to trends that more expensive surgical procedures are performed than necessary  - with little evidence that such procedures provide better results, than simpler surgeries or non-surgical therapies.

As part of the complex healthcare scene in the United States, we have made an effort to educate the population as to its benefits of our advanced healthcare technologies and therapies – that we can now relieve at least some of the pain and disability normally associated with age-related health issues. However, as more patients seek out these treatments, more and more healthcare providers compete for these patients. Costs escalate – straining limited resources on the healthcare system – contributing to the paradox of promised health care miracles that may soon be simply too expensive to afford.


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