Harvard Health Blog

What doctors call "routine" back pain can really, really hurt. Surprisingly, the best treatment is usually quite conservative--over-the-counter pain relievers, ice and heat, and gentle exercise. Yet for decades, many doctors have been ordering more and more unnecessary tests, narcotics, and referrals for surgery.

"Most routine back pain will improve on its own with conservative therapy in three months, often shorter than that," says Dr. Bruce E. Landon, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. "Even more importantly, when we do more aggressive things--such as injections, imaging, and surgery--the long-term outcomes don't change at all. These things have very little impact on what is going on, and they have the potential to make things worse."

The trend of overdiagnosis and overtreatment is getting worse, according to a new study by Landon and his colleagues. They analyzed nationally representative data from 1999 through 2010 on nearly 24,000 outpatient visits for acute, new onset or chronic flare-up back pain to see if these people were treated according to established, evidence-based guidelines. Endorsed by both U.S. and international experts, these guidelines:

1. Call for treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen and naproxen) or acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic).

2. Call for referral to physical therapy when appropriate.

3. Advise against early referral for imaging (such as MRI and CT scans) except in rare cases where "red flags" suggest something other than routine back pain.

4. Advise against prescribing narcotics.

5: Advise against early referral to other physicians for injections or surgery.


The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, revealed that doctors were increasingly ignoring these guidelines. During the study period:

--Use of NSAIDS and acetaminophen went down, from 36.9 percent of visits in 1999-2000 to 24.5 percent of visits in 2009-2010.

--Prescriptions for narcotic pain relievers went up, from 19.3 percent of visits in 1999-2000 to 29.1 percent of visits in 2009-2010.

--Referrals to physical therapy remained low at 20 percent of visits.

--Referral to other physicians went up, from 6.8 percent of visits in 1999-2000 to 14 percent of visits in 2009-2010.

--Referrals for CT or MRI scans increased from 7.2 percent of visits in 1999-2000 to 11.3 percent of visits in 2009-2010.

"It is hard to not do anything aggressive, especially when you are having a lot of pain," Dr. Landon says. "So people ask for these more advanced things and, unfortunately, doctors are often willing to prescribe them because that's the path of least resistance."

This path of least resistance for primary care providers is a treasure trove for surgeons, specialists, and pain clinics. In the United States, health care for back pain adds up to about $86 billion each year. When people with routine back pain are referred for MRI imaging, they're eight times more likely to have surgery.

When people with back pain ask for off-guideline treatments, it takes time to understand their expectations and to explain how conservative treatment is better suited to their situation. Doctors may not feel they have that kind of time, notes Dr. John Mafi, chief medical resident at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Mass., and first author of the study.