$86 Billion Spent on Back, Neck Pain
Despite Nation's Dramatic Increase in Spending, Little Improvement Seen in Patients
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Martin tells WebMD that the 65% inflation-adjusted increase in total costs
among adults with spine problems was higher than the increase in health costs
"We are spending as much on spine problems as we do for cancer and
arthritis," he says. "The only disease category that dwarfs these is
heart disease and
stroke. If we are spending more on diagnosis and treatment, we should
expect to see health status changes that are commensurate with that investment.
But that is not what we are seeing."
Steep Rise in Drug Costs
Some of the largest increases have been in expenditures related to drug
treatments, Martin says.