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Growing number of upstate New Yorkers needlessly choosing back surgery, insurer reports

More upstate New Yorkers with back pain are undergoing surgery and taking prescription medication such as opiate painkillers even though noninvasive treatments such as simple exercises and over-the-counter drugs usually work, according to a Univera Healthcare report released Wednesday.

“We need to change our thinking when it comes to back pain,” said Dr. Richard Vienne, Univera Healthcare vice president and chief medical officer. “If patients receive the wrong care at the wrong time, it could actually lead to worse outcomes.”

More than 80 percent of upstate New York adults will experience low back pain at some point, nearly two-thirds will experience neck pain, and some will endure chronic suffering.

Dr. Richard Vienne. a chief medical officer for Univera Healthcare and a primary care doctor at the Amherst Health Care Center, urges those with back and neck pain try simpler treatments first. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Dr. Richard Vienne. a chief medical officer for Univera Healthcare and a primary care doctor at the Amherst Health Care Center, urges those with back and neck pain try simpler treatments first. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Treatment can be costly, particularly when it comes to surgery, Univera officials said.

  • In 2013, 626,000 upstate New York adults ages 18 and older received back and/or neck pain care that added nearly $1 billion to total, direct health care costs in the region. About 36 percent of that amount was spent on surgery, 32.2 percent was spent on diagnostic services and physician visits, and 32.9 percent was spent on non-surgical interventions.
  • Surgeries for the treatment of back pain among upstate New York adults saw a 10 percent rise in utilization from 2010 to 2013.
  • There was nearly a 14 percent increase in spine patients prescribed a medication within the first six weeks of diagnosis during the same time frame.
  • In 2013, almost half of patients treated for spine pain received a prescription for medication to treat the condition within the first six weeks of diagnosis. More than half of patients who were prescribed medications received a prescription for an opiate.


Many of these patients – particularly those involved in car crashes or falls – sometime make the wrong treatment choices when consulting a lawyer before a doctor, Dr. Anthony Leone, a Cheektowaga spine surgeon, told WNY Refresh last fall.

He called surgery a last resort, and also advised against the use of opiods except for short periods after a mishap or surgery.

“These are life-altering surgical procedures that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Leone told The Buffalo News. “Once it’s done, it’s done. If you’re 22, 24 or 32 years old, and somebody puts screws and rods and cages and other stuff in your back, there’s no going back from that. You bought that forever.”

Dr. Anthony Leone called back surgery a last resort in a WNY Refresh story you can read here.

Choosing Wisely, an initiative of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, collected care recommendations from physician-led medical specialty societies for the purpose of improving the quality of care and encouraging physician-patient conversations about services that may be unnecessary and may cause harm. Recommendations related to spine pain include the following:

  • The North American Spine Society does not recommend magnetic resonance imaging in the first six weeks of care for patients with nonspecific acute low back pain, nor does it recommend bed rest for more than 48 hours when treating low back pain.
  • The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation recommends that health care providers only prescribe opiates for acute disabling low back pain after an evaluation and when other alternatives have been tried. Prescribing opiates early for acute disabling low back pain is associated with longer disability, higher surgical rates and a greater risk of later opioid use.


“The number of opioid related deaths in Erie County is growing rapidly,” Erie County Department of Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said in a news release. “The Erie County Department of Health estimates that the number of opioid related overdose deaths will likely more than double in 2016 compared to 2015. “Legitimate prescription opioid use is associated with an increased risk of long-term opioid use and possibly misuse. Clinicians should incorporate the addictive risk of opioid prescribing into prescribing decisions and patient counseling.”

Added Paul Pettit, public health director for the Orleans and Genesee county health departments, “We are aware of the issues related to increased opiate use and abuse in both Orleans and Genesee counties. It is important for those who are experiencing back pain to talk with their primary care providers about minimal treatment which may include rest, physical therapy and over-the-counter medications and to follow their advice.

“It is also important for individuals who are prescribed regulated medications to remember to take them as prescribed and to dispose of them properly once no longer needed. Check with local pharmacies and law enforcement agencies on the proper disposal of medications.”

If you have low back pain, the research Univera Healthcare compiled in its report advises staying active, limiting bed rest, using pillows between or beneath the knees when you sleep, applying heat for pain management, taking over-the-counter medications when needed, consulting your primary care provider or alternative non-surgical treatments provider – such as physical therapy and chiropractic care – if needed and remaining relaxed to avoid worsening pain.

To view “The facts about spine care in upstate New York, 2013,”  click here.


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