Stabbed in the Back: Confronting Back Pain in an Overtreated Society
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Stabbed in the Back: Confronting Back Pain in an Overtreated Society

by Nortin M. Hadler

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Nortin Hadler knows backaches. For more than three decades as a physician and medical researcher, he has studied the experience of low back pain in people who are otherwise healthy. Hadler terms the low back pain that everyone suffers at one time or another "regional back pain." In this book, he addresses the history and treatment of the ailment with the healthy


Nortin Hadler knows backaches. For more than three decades as a physician and medical researcher, he has studied the experience of low back pain in people who are otherwise healthy. Hadler terms the low back pain that everyone suffers at one time or another "regional back pain." In this book, he addresses the history and treatment of the ailment with the healthy skepticism that has become his trademark, taking the "Hadlerian" approach to backaches and the backache treatment industry in order to separate the helpful from the hype.

Basing his critique on an analysis of the most current medical literature as well as his clinical experience, Hadler argues that regional back pain is overly medicalized by doctors, surgeons, and alternative therapists who purvey various treatment regimens. Furthermore, he observes, the design of workers' compensation, disability insurance, and other "health" schemes actually thwarts getting well. For the past half century, says Hadler, back pain and back pain-related disability have exacted a huge toll, in terms of pain, suffering, and financial cost. Stabbed in the Back addresses this issue at multiple levels: as a human predicament, a profound social problem, a medical question, and a vexing public-policy challenge. Ultimately, Hadler's insights illustrate how the state of the science can and should inform the art and practice of medicine as well as public policy. Stabbed in the Back will arm any reader with the insights necessary to make informed decisions when confronting the next episode of low back pain.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Relentlessly probes the effectiveness of common medical treatments and finds them wanting. . . . [A] compelling book.—Library Journal

Publishers Weekly
Nobody's going to like Hadler's prescription for backache—neither patients, doctors nor the government. But here it is from the UNC professor and health-care reformist author (Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America): get over it. “The fact is that you may be best off if you do not tell anyone about your regional backache and try to get on with it,” he declares. Hadler argues that no theory on what causes regional back pain “has stood up to scientific testing,” and the myriad of treatments do more to sustain “an enormous treatment enterprise” than ease the pain. Hadler presents an impressive survey of what doctors, chiropractors and surgeons now offer for back pain—and of the history and rationale for government disability programs. His conclusion is scornful. “Predicaments of life” such as back pain are not “injuries,” Hadler insists. “[H]eadache, heartburn, sleeplessness, altered bowel habits, and many regional musculoskeletal disorders... do not respond to treatment as diseases because they are not diseases.” That's what you call a bitter pill— but one that should trigger a much needed debate among health-care reformers. 5 illus. (Nov. 15)
Library Journal
Hadler (medicine & microbiology/immunology, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) holds that back treatments are the "poster child" for "the most irrational health-care system on the planet." As in his previous Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, Hadler relentlessly probes the effectiveness of common medical treatments and finds them wanting. Although he touches on such conditions as carpal-tunnel syndrome and fibromyalgia, he focuses on back pain that has no detectable physical cause. While some soldier on with aspirin or acetaminophen and eventually improve, others seek out specialists who may recommend a range of treatments that, collectively, consume $30 billion per year. As Hadler points out, very few of these treatments are effective in the long run. In addition to the costs and risks of futile treatments, Hadler argues that the psychological toll of being labeled "sick" means that many patients are unable to return to their normal lives, particularly when they fall into the bureaucratic morass of Workmen's Compensation. VERDICT Though often challenging in its technical language, this compelling book is well worth the effort for students of medicine, public health, and health-care policy and, of course, for those contemplating back surgery.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Stabbed in the BACK



All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3348-3


To live a year without a backache is abnormal.

Backache is an intermittent predicament of life. No one is spared for long. Furthermore, no approach to avoiding the next episode has proved effective when submitted to scientific testing. To be well is not to avoid backache; it is to have the wherewithal to cope with it effectively and repeatedly.

Almost all of the people we will be talking about in this book were afflicted with regional backache, and that is the only type of backache we will consider here. I coined that term for an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine over twenty years ago. Regional backache is the back pain experienced by people who are otherwise well. It comes on inexplicably, usually suddenly, in the course of activities that are familiar and customarily comfortable. This is the common, everyday backache. We will spend some time considering some of the more frequent complications of a regional backache, particularly the "pinched nerve," which can cause pain to radiate down the leg. We are not going to consider the unusual causes of backache, such as metastatic cancer, infections, or inflammatory diseases of the spine. Nor will we consider the back pain that can result from accidents and other traumatic events.

While I am talking about what this book is not, let me say that it is not a self-help manual. Nor is it a medical textbook. Stabbed in the Back is an exposé of a contrived "disease" and the enormous enterprises it has spawned that conspire to its "cure" and provide fallback when a "cure" is elusive. That industry has developed a life of its own despite a robust and compelling body of scientific investigation that points toward backache as a socially constructed ailment. The American notion of health, the American's wherewithal to cope and persevere, and the American pocketbook are paying a heavy price.

An assault on the backache industry is long overdue. No reader will find all of the chapters that follow resting easily within his or her preconceptions. Many will find some of the information presented here to be counterintuitive, some of it infuriating. After all, no one has escaped backache; we all know someone who suffered mightily and probably someone whose life is burdened with a "bad back." I am not out to rub salt in the wounds of sufferers. But I know no other way to help those yet to fall victim, and perhaps some who already have, than to forcefully and directly decry the status quo and to support my assertions with the science that society has ignored.

Clinical aspects of regional low back pain and the various treatments are discussed in the central chapters. My intent is to illustrate the fashion in which the state of the science could and should inform the state of the art. There are many relevant, reproducible, quantifiable scientific assertions about back pain. Some of the science leads to assertions that are counterintuitive. Many are a reproach to "common practice." All are difficult to implement given the common wisdom about backache. Changing attitudes and entrenched practices is never quick and easy. I have written this book in the hope of greasing that path.

Over the ages, almost every causal and therapeutic notion imaginable, and some unimaginable, has been foisted on the individual who seeks assistance in coping with a regional backache. Furthermore, often, even more often than not, the assistance coincides with relief of the pain. Few who sought a "cure" would then regard the "cure" as a coincidence. Few who are "cured" can entertain the possibility that they were fooled, that they would have done as well without the "cure." Hence, "cures" become entrenched and over time succor their purveyors and their advocates, who are certain that their record of success is incontrovertible evidence that their diagnosis of the cause of the pain was valid and the "cure" worked. On the next flare-up of back pain, the firm believer is likely to return for another ministration. And if the result is less satisfactory, he is likely to assume that this episode of back pain is worse or different from the last and that another type of treatment needs to be superimposed. In this fashion, society convinces so many people that therapists hold the solution to their current or next backache. Testing all these parallel and intertwined, yet firmly held, beliefs is an enormous scientific challenge.

One of the greatest yet unsung accomplishments of the scientific method is to have largely met this challenge. In the past twenty years, not only have many of the theories regarding the avoidance of back pain been tested, but many of the proposed treatments have been systematically studied as well. None survives "unscathed," and most have been proven untenable. Each of the central chapters of this book examines a particular establishment committed to and succored by the present system: the physician, the alternative provider, and the surgeon. To the extent that each rests on untested beliefs, or beliefs that defy testing on methodological grounds, they are sectarian communities of providers. Many who are treated and most doing the treating balk at submitting their treatments to scientific testing. They fall back on metaphysical arguments, and they have the power and money to influence the polity and the common sense. All I can do is hope that this book will arm readers with the critical wherewithal to fend for themselves in this marketplace. I realize that the lag between the time that our preconceptions are formed and the time that we need to exercise informed choice can be many decades. All I can hope is that reason will prevail over sectarian interests and metaphysical arguments ... someday.

In writing this book, I have several goals that relate to health-care policy. I have just stated the first. The second relates to the notion that a regional backache is an injury. The latter chapters in the book take on this idea. Prior to the 1940s, one would have been no more comfortable labeling a regional backache an "injury" than one would a headache. This change is not simply an exercise in labeling; it is an example of a linguistic determinism that accompanied the rise of a movement for a safer workplace.

Before the mid-twentieth century, almost no American worker had health insurance other than what was covered by workers' compensation schemes for an injury that occurred at work. The injured worker is indemnified for medical care and salary maintenance. It is not surprising that a hernia in the groin area would soon be labeled a "rupture" qualifying as a compensable injury. Backache soon followed. I can explain these roots in empathic terms. However, labeling regional back pain an injury has not afforded much advantage to the worker with regional low back pain. To the contrary, it has provided the workforce with relentless grief and the establishment committed to its perpetuation with unconscionable largesse. The phrase "I injured my back at work" and workers' compensation indemnity schemes go hand in hand. In the past two decades, the relationship has been carefully and scientifically explored, and the results are clear. The final chapters of Stabbed in the Back dissect the ergonomic fallacy, the primacy of the context of work over the content of tasks, and our fatally flawed approach to disability determination. Again, my hope is that reason will prevail over the vast establishment vested in the status quo so that someday the plight of the worker with a back "injury" will evoke empathic treatment and not approaches that predispose to persistent suffering and disability. That will not happen until we all understand why a particular worker might find a predicament of normal life, a regional backache, to be disabling. These chapters, more than any others, are a product of my own research over the past thirty years.

I have written extensively on the contemporary notion of "well-being" and the fashion in which that social construction promotes the provision of irrational health care. Today's backache is an object lesson. The implications for health-care reform are also clear and compelling.

Science has not arrived at contemporary understandings in a particularly straightforward fashion. Hypotheses are never generated in a vacuum; they always carry the baggage of what came before. The more powerful stakeholders somehow find a way to impose their views and preconceptions. Research into back pain is a case in point. And back-pain research is finally emerging into the light of reproducible results.

Metaphorically, one might imagine several enterprises vying to tunnel through a mountain of preconceptions about backache. Each stakes out a unique starting point. Their progress is determined by the amount of backing they have, and their paths are rendered erratic by false starts and unforeseen impediments. Each has its own sponsor with distinctive goals regarding prevention, causation, and treatment. Seldom do they share secrets. In fact, seldom do they take cognizance of each other as more than distant rumblings in adjacent passageways. Each excavation is leaving a mountain of detritus—the detritus of discarded hypotheses—at their tunnel entrance. This book compares and contrasts these tunnels to a degree that seldom occupies the excavators themselves. Most of these tunneling enterprises are now breaking through the crust of the other side of the mountain. The reader of Stabbed in the Back will be among the first to realize that all of them have come to a common egress.


Excerpted from Stabbed in the BACK by NORTIN M. HADLER Copyright © 2009 by THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Nortin Hadler exposes the overmanagement of a sometimes-contrived disease with a compelling body of scientific investigation.—Mehmet Oz, M.D., New York Presbyterian Hospital, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University

In clear and compelling language, Nortin Hadler explains the dilemma of back pain and all the ways that patients can be misled. This book is a must read for those suffering as well as for the rest of our society, so we can better remedy ailments with fewer drugs, fewer surgeries, and greater wisdom.—Jerome Groopman, M.D., Recanati Professor, Harvard Medical School, author of How Doctors Think

Dr. Hadler brings a fresh epistemology to the entity described as back pain. His gift with words and his scientific knowledge provide a freshness that allows each of us confronting back pain and its insidious nature to rethink our current and future needs. This brilliant work will stand as his best work for decades to come.—James N. Weinstein, D.O., M.S., professor and chair of orthopedic surgery at Dartmouth College, Medical School; director of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice

Meet the Author

Nortin M. Hadler, M.D., M.A.C.P., F.A.C.R., F.A.C.O.E.M., is professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attending rheumatologist at UNC Hospitals. His most recent book is Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America (UNC Press).

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