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Study: Injured workers may not benefit from spinal fusion surgery

Every year, thousands of employees working in a variety of different fields injure their lower backs. In many situations, these back-related work injuries can be very serious and even potentially debilitating. Moreover, they frequently result in extended time away from work and increased costs for employers.

Many employees who suffer these lower back injuries - herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, etc. - elect to undergo spinal fusion surgery. This is an operation in which adjacent vertebrae are fused together surgically in the hopes of eliminating or reducing lower back pain.

Interestingly, a recently published study in the medical journal Spine concluded that those patients who have suffered lower back injuries - and who are receiving work comp benefits - may not benefit from spinal fusion surgery. In fact, they often have worse long-term outcomes than similarly injured patients who undergo nonsurgical treatment.

The study's primary author, Dr. Trang Nguyen of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and his team of researchers, examined 725 Ohio workers' compensation cases involving injured workers who underwent spinal fusion surgery.

Specifically, they examined the final treatment outcomes of these injured workers at two-year follow-ups, meaning they looked closely at disability rates, return to work rates and pain medication rates.

These figures were then compared with a random sampling of 725 Ohio workers' compensation cases involving injured workers who chose nonsurgical alternatives to treat their lower back pain (i.e., physical therapy, exercise).

The results?

  • A little more than 25 percent of injured workers who underwent spinal fusion surgery had returned to work while 66 percent of injured workers who chose nonsurgical alternatives had returned to work
  • 11 percent of injured workers who underwent spinal fusion surgery had a permanent disability while only 2 percent of injured workers who chose nonsurgical alternatives had a permanent disability
  • 27 percent of injured workers who underwent spinal fusion surgery had repeat procedures and 36 percent suffered some type of complication

"This procedure is offered to improve pain and function, yet objective outcomes showed increased permanent disability, poor return to work status, and higher doses of opioids," read the study.

According to Dr. Nguyen and the other researchers, spinal fusion surgery "may not be an effective operation for workers' compensation patients" and should therefore be "cautiously considered."

Stay tuned for further developments in the area of workers' compensation defense ...

This post was provided for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.

Related Resources:

Spinal fusion surgery provides worse outcomes in workers' compensation patients (Medical News)

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