TODAY   |  July 30, 2013

Study: Back pain treatment too aggressive for some

Americans are estimated to spend as much as $86 billion a year in search of back pain relief, but a new study suggests less can be more when it comes to treatment. TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie reports and sports medicine specialist Dr. Jordan Metzl discusses the study.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the millions of americans suffering from back pain? there's a new study and it suggests you may not be getting the proper treatment after all.

>> it's one of the most common reasons for going to the doctor. back pain. more than 66 million americans suffer from it. in fact, according to the national institutes of health , 8 out of 10 people will have back pain at some point in their lives. by some estimates patients spend as much as $86 billion each year in search of relief. but buyer beware . a new study suggests less is more and cautions consumers, be careful what the doctor ordered. more often than not, doctors are turning to prescription drugs instead of over the counter medicines to treat back pain but the american college of physicians says in many cases prescription drugs are not necessary. let's get some perspective from a sports medicine specialist at the hospital for special surgery here in new york. he is also the author of the athlete's book of home remedies. you're the perfect person to talk to about this. apparently this study has a couple of headlines and one is that the narcotics are being overprescribed when something over the counter might work for back pain.

>> that's right. i was really interested to see this study and that jumped out at me as well. these are dangerous medicines so we're very careful about giving those and should be. people taking these, it's definitely user beware. they're dangerous medicines.

>> i think by the time you go see a doctor with your back pain, you've tried advil and motrin and the over the counter things and they haven't worked.

>> medicine can be part of the equati equation. when a nerve gets back, it kills. it hurts a lot. a short-term course of medicine can help but there's other things that help more.

>> the thing about the narcotics and stuff like vicodin or percocet or something like that, there's some analysis that shows they're not even of that much benefit for back pain. in other words, they don't offer that much relief.

>> that's right. many of us don't use those much at all or just for a short period of time.

>> what are the dangers of potential consequences if you do take the heavier medicines?

>> you can get addicted to those medicines. we're much more interested in fixing the causes of back pain rather than dealing with only the symptoms. so the medicines are helpful for the symptoms but they don't fix the cause.

>> the other big headlines is doctors maybe sending patients for high-tech treatments, scans, like mris or ct scans too commonly. is that an issue?

>> that jumped out at me the most. if we just got an mri of everybody outside today, 50% of those people would have a herniated disk and wouldn't even know it. there's a lot of people walking around with bulging disks. if you have a painful back and get an mri you think that the disk is causing the pain. that might not be the case. they sometimes give too much information.

>> do you feel the pressure, i have a patient, a quick fix or explanation and it will turn every stone over?

>> you bet, people want to come in and want that information as quickly as possible. my job is to fix the pain they're in and try to figure out how to make them better but sometimes imagining is not always the answer right away. we reserve those for people that have pain shooting down their legs or things that aren't getting better but we try to treat the symptoms by working on the muscles.

>> and the healthcare costs go skyrocketing.

>> that's a big issue as