August 22, 2014
A Better Way to Diagnose Back Pain
by MaryRose Reaston and Frank Tomecek
Tools commonly used in workers' comp, including MRIs, can be overly sensitive and lead to overtreatment.
Neck and back disorders account for an estimated one third of all work-related injuries in the private sector. In only about 5% of all cases is back pain associated with serious underlying pathology requiring diagnostic confirmation and directed treatment, yet magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is, controversially, often used for diagnosis. New technology can specifically diagnose muscle-related back pain and produce better outcomes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, back pain is the single most common reason Americans seek medical attention, and a U.S. Department of Health study showed that managing this type of health disorder costs $850 billion annually. About 20% to 40% of the working population is estimated to experience back pain at some point, with a recurrence rate of 85%.
The majority of back pain comes from musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which are treatable through medication and physical therapy. MRI is frequently used to diagnose back pain, yet it is overly sensitive in identifying the cause unless it correlates with an objective clinical exam. European Spine Journal ran an article in February 2012 that found that a considerable number of cases of lumbar disc herniation (HNP) and spinal stenosis that were diagnosed through MRI may have been classified incorrectly. MRI is overly sensitive in exposing structural abnormalities of the spine, but not specific enough to diagnose accurately the cause of the back pain. Even though MRI imaging is commonly used to diagnose the cause of back pain, it is costly, ineffective and contributes to overuse. In fact, lumbar spine scans have risen dramatically in recent years and account for about a third of all MRIs done in some regions, despite the poor correlation between its findings and clinical signs and symptoms.
In addition, there are at least two studies that have been conducted to assess MRI findings in patients without back pain and that have raised concerns. In 2001, Spine published a study of 148 patients; all were asymptomatic, yet an MRI scan showed that 83% had moderate desiccation of one or more discs, that 64% had one or more bulging discs and that 32% had at least one disc protrusion. The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, found that only 36% of 98 asymptomatic subjects had normal test results from an MRI.
The evidence indicates that it is common for patients who experience back pain to have abnormal MRI scans, regardless of their condition. Spine surgeons, knowing that MRI can be overly sensitive and non-specific in diagnosing back pain, also use discography, a provocative and invasive test, to attempt to accurately pinpoint the cause of pain. In reviewing many studies of this tool, it is clear that even discography can be overly sensitive and often inaccurate in identifying the cause of back pain and in predicting the outcome of surgery. In addition, because it is invasive, discography can actually contribute to further injury in certain patients. Imaging diagnosis for acute back pain often leads to surgery, and complications from unnecessary surgery can prolong back pain or lead to permanent disability.
Because costly imaging studies often fail to produce positive health outcomes for patients with back pain, X-ray, MRI and CT scans should be used primarily for patients with neurogenic disorders or other serious underlying conditions. Because the majority of back pain is musculoskeletal in nature, the primary tools used to diagnose back pain are ineffective.
What is needed is a tool that effectively diagnoses a musculoskeletal disorder. Electrodiagnostic Function Assessment (EFA) is an emerging technology that is a non-invasive and safe diagnostic device registered with the FDA. It can distinguish between spinal, neurogenic and MSD conditions, which can greatly help physicians reach a specific diagnosis. This is especially true in terms of workplace injuries, where MSD conditions are prevalent and difficult to diagnosis and treat, given that the complaints are often subjective.
The following are two case examples where EFA technology, in combination with a neurosurgeon’s evaluation, was used to make accurate diagnosis and treatments:
In the first case, a 34-year-old patient sustained a work-related injury from repetitively using an air-powered grinder. As a result of a court-ordered independent medical exam (IME), the patient went to a neurosurgeon with complaints of bilateral, radiating neck pain and numbness in his right hand. After undergoing an EFA examination, it was found that his resting readings were within normal limits for all muscle groups evaluated. The EFA did indicate non-significant spine and muscular irritation, with chronic muscular weakness. The patient then underwent an MRI, which was abnormal, showing diffuse stenosis but no herniated discs or neural impingement. The IME doctor deemed he was not a surgical candidate and recommended treatment with conservative, site-specific physical therapy and muscle relaxants. The EFA and neurosurgeon prevented unnecessary surgery and were able to help with appropriate care to get this case satisfactorily closed.
The second case involved a 30-year-old mechanic who sustained a work-related injury, straining his neck while opening the hood on a semi. The EFA revealed no muscular irritation, but spinal pathology revealed an issue in the neck area that could be clinically significant. In addition, the EFA findings indicated acute neck pain, increased curving of the spine and loss of range of motion. In this case, the IME neurosurgeon requested an MRI, which confirmed the findings of the EFA examination. The MRI further showed a herniated disc consistent with the patient’s symptoms and exam. The patient failed physical therapy, and appropriate surgery was recommended. The patient underwent surgery and had an excellent outcome.
In both of these cases, the administering physicians were able to make exceedingly accurate diagnoses by having the correct tools available to them. This would not have been possible without the assistance of the EFA. By using the appropriate diagnostic tool, each physician was able to render a more accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment, which not only assisted the patient but helped to lower healthcare and workers’ compensation costs.
The use of MRI or other imaging technologies alone in diagnosing causes for back pain can be misleading and inaccurate in localizing pain generators. However, a more accurate diagnosis can be made when used in conjunction with the findings of EFA, so that appropriate site-specific treatments can be provided, leading to better patient outcomes and improved healthcare.
The authors invite you to join them at the NexGen Workers’ Compensation Summit 2015, to be held Jan. 13 in Carlsbad, CA. The conference, hosted by Emerge Diagnostics, is dedicated to past lessons from, the current status of and the future for workers’ compensation. The conference is an opportunity for companies to network and learn, as well as contribute personal experience to the general knowledge base for workers’ compensation. Six CEU credits are offered. For more information, click here.
Comment from Brent Nelson, Area Medical Director/Medical Director Occupational Medicine AZ at NextCare Urgent Care:
When an MRI is ordered simply for back pain that is not responding to treatment as well as expected, and the provider does not have a clear idea of what the problem may be, ambiguous findings may serve only to muddy the waters and increase the cost of treatment and possibly even result in unnecessary procedures. A bulging or ruptured disk without nerve impingement, annular tear, facet arthropathy, etc. are findings that may exist in asymptomatic populations, and may not be the cause of the pain.
A very detailed and thorough examination should always be performed at each visit, and this coupled with a detailed history should lead to an accurate diagnosis.
Quality of physical therapy must also be assessed when patients do not return to baseline as quickly as expected. Is the patient being treated by a physical therapist with experience in sports medicine? These PTs tend to have a better outcome for back and neck pain. Is there an indication for kinesio taping? Would an IFC/stim unit help breach a plateau? These are all considerations in treatment that may help with resolution prior to an MRI.
And again, an MRI should be ordered to confirm a diagnosis, and is most often indicated for a persisting radiculopathy or for an injury that may have resulted in an acute facet injury (not the same as degenerative changes in facet joint).
Simple XRays when conservative treatment begins to fail can give hints as to underlying degenerative issues which mean patient will take a little longer to return to baseline, and help prevent advanced imaging being ordered prematurely.
In short, the physical exam should give a good physician an idea of the problem and advanced imaging ordered only when one wants to confirm a suspected diagnosis.
The importance of knowledgeable physicians and therapists working in collaboration, and involving the carrier during the process, is often overlooked (and often times hard to find). The majority of the time, the patients answers to questions and an appropriate physical exam will give one the answers to the questions about origin of pain and indicated treatment.