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$86 Billion Spent on Back, Neck Pain

Despite Nation's Dramatic Increase in Spending, Little Improvement Seen in Patients
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 12, 2008 -- More U.S. health care dollars are spent treating back and neck pain than almost any other medical condition, but much of that money may be wasted, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle, found that the nation's dramatic rise in expenditures for the diagnosis and treatment of back and neck problems has not led to expected improvements in patient health.

Their study appears in the Feb. 13 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

After adjustment for inflation, total estimated medical costs associated with back and neck pain increased by 65% between 1997 and 2005, to about $86 billion a year.

That is in line with annual expenditures for major conditions, including cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.

Yet during the same period, patients reported more disability from back and neck pain, including more depression and physical limitations.

"We did not observe improvements in health outcomes commensurate with the increasing costs over time," lead researcher Brook I. Martin, MPH, and colleagues wrote. "Spine problems may offer opportunities to reduce expenditures without associated worsening of clinical outcomes."

(Living with back pain? Is the cost of your treatment becoming more than you can bear? Discuss it with others on WebMD's Back Pain: Support Group board.)

The Cost of Treating Back Pain

Low-back pain is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits, with one in four adults in one survey reporting low-back pain within the previous three months. Neck pain is also a common reason for doctor visits.

Over the past decade, diagnostic imaging has become common for patients with back and neck pain, and the use of narcotics, injections, and surgery has also increased dramatically.

In an effort to better understand the medical costs and benefits associated with these interventions, Martin and colleagues analyzed data from the nationally representative survey of medical expenditures from 1997 through 2005.

After adjusting for inflation, they estimated individual yearly medical expenditures among adults with back and neck problems were $4,695 in 1997 and $6,096 in 2005, compared with $2,731 and $3,516, respectively, for people without back and neck problems.

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