When seniors report back pain to their doctors, one of the first steps that is usually taken is to order imaging to guide diagnosis, like an MRI or a CT scan. This has been protocol, and the assumption is that older patients who have new back pain are likely to have another, more serious underlying issue.
According to U.S. News, a new study reports that older patients who get early scans don’t actually recover any faster or better than older patients who don’t. Though the first assumption may be that doctors are ordering more expensive tests to drive up health care costs, this isn’t actually the case.
“Older adults with back pain who seek care and get imaging within six weeks of their doctors visit for back pain do not have better outcomes than similar older adults who do not get early imaging,” said study author Dr. Jeffrey Jarvik, who is a professor of radiology, neurological surgery and health services at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
The study looked at more than 5,200 patients older than the age of 65 who sought treatment for new back pain between the years 2011 and 2013. The researchers found that these patients ended up with more treatments and higher bills, but didn’t fare much better than patients who didn’t get early scans.
“Imaging should only be used as an extension of the patient interview and physical exam,” states Christopher Twombly, MD from the Sierra Regional Spine Institute. “Absent any trauma or debilitating pain or neurologic deficit, other treatment should be explored before expensive imaging studies are ordered.”
Experts say that about eight in 10 people will experience a type of back problem at least once in their lives, and it can be a pretty costly health issue. As it is, and likely because of unfounded protocols like early scans, Americans spend about $50 billion per year on back pain. That figure only covers the easily identified costs.
A survey by The Journal of the American Medical Association found that the expenditures for back and neck care increased by 65% between 1997 and 2005, but with new evidence that early scanning may be moot, this may drop in the coming years.