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Health Team

Study: Surgery Beats Therapy in Healing Bad Backs

Posted November 21, 2006
Updated November 24, 2006

WRAL Health Team
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— Surgery works slightly better than physical therapy at eliminating the pain caused by herniated discs, according to a new study.

Researchers compared recovery from surgery and non-surgical treatments over two years. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, included more than 1,000 patients in 13 states.

"They both improved over time in step with each other, but the surgical patients improved a little more than the non-operative patients at each time point," Dr. James Weinstein of the Dartmouth College School of Medicine said.

In CT scan of the spinal column, the tell-tale sign of a herniated disc is a bubble poking out of the vertebrae. The bubble presses on nerves and can cause excruciating pain in the back and leg.

In surgery, doctors remove the bubble. Up to 300,000 such procedures are performed annually in the U.S.

The decision to choose surgery or non-surgical treatments often depends on the severity of pain, health experts said.

Susan Filskov took part in the study and chose surgery over therapy to repair her herniated disc.

"I was at the point where I couldn't sleep in my bed," Filskov said of the pain she felt before surgery. "If you can get physical therapy and work through it, that's great. But if you're at the point where you just can't tolerate anymore, there are other options."

She said her back and leg pain immediately improved after surgery, which Weinstein said was common across the study.

Both surgical and therapy patient groups saw their pain lessen and functioning improve within three months, he said, noting each group got better over time.

"What patients need to do is be empowered with their doctors, to be knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of surgical or non-surgical treatment," Weinstein said.
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