Avoiding Risky & Invasive Treatment

January 25th, 2018

Last August, one of our members, Clifford Stoller, MD, wrote a guest post entitled The Truth About Back Surgery. In it, Dr. Stoller suggested that only a minority of back disorders actually require surgery. Taking on what has for a long time been conventional wisdom regarding the management and treatment of chronic back pain, he suggested a conservative approach as opposed to radical surgical intervention.

A few months later, Jon. S., a member from Indiana, reached out to us because his experience with back pain so closely mirrored the statements Dr. Stoller made in his article. Jon was using health insurance throughout his back pain and subsequent treatment, however, as he is now a Liberty HealthShare member, he shared his experience so fellow members will also have the information they need to avoid this costly intervention. Below is an excerpt from our recent conversation with Jon:

How long did you suffer from back pain? Was it the result of an injury? There was no event or injury. The pain just came on. It was very intense: on a scale of 1-10, I averaged a 6 or 7. At best my pain was a 4, and at moments it was an 8-9. The pain was all day, every day. No matter what, I was always in pain.

Did your physician immediately jump to surgery as the best option or did he or she complete a battery of other tests beforehand? My doctor did an MRI and saw a disc that was inflamed. He recommended physical therapy, which we tried, but it wasn't successful. Six months later, I went back to my doctor and he recommended spinal fusion surgery. Ultimately, based on data showing that this kind of surgery is often unsuccessful, my insurance company rejected it. In hindsight, I know this was a blessing.

When insurance rejected coverage for surgery, what was your physician's response? He was frustrated and at a loss as to what else could be done. Unfortunately, it started to seem as though he was more interested in a paycheck than in finding the best solution for my pain. I know this attitude isn't pervasive, but sadly it does exist. You can appeal the insurance company's decision, so the doctor advised me to get a second opinion to try and prove my need a second time. Rather than go through that process, I decided to instead do some reading on the topic.

What I found confirmed what the insurance company had said. It's all based on odds and percentages of success. I think the reason most people opt for surgery is that when you're in that much pain, anything sounds like a good option.

How did you ultimately reduce your pain? About six months later, my brother turned me on to another type of physical therapy he had found online. I started doing it regularly and within about a month, my pain was less than half of what it had been. Three months in, I was down to a low level of pain that only flared up from time to time. The therapy emphasizes strengthening and flexibility to build a healthy back over time. In the long-term, it not only treats back pain but also prevents future issues.

Are you back to normal now? Yes. My pain had really slowed me down and kept me from doing a lot of activities. Now I'm 99% recovered. I very rarely deal with minimal pain and it's usually when I go too long without doing my exercises.

How would you advise a fellow member who is considering back surgery? Do a lot of your own research. The internet is a powerful tool. You'll find a lot of negative stories (and some positive) concerning back surgery outcomes. First off, try various types of therapy and give them time to work. Some types work for some people and others work for others. Focus on physical therapy and give your body time to heal.

Don't just jump into surgery. I'm not saying it's wrong for everyone, but it seems to be wrong for many. The cost is also very high, which puts a strain on your fellow members' dollars for a treatment that is very risky and might not work anyway.

Do you have anything additional to share? This experience has shown me that one of the best things you can do is take care of yourself, exercise, and eat right.

Jon, we appreciate you taking the time to share your insights on this topic. We're glad you took the time to explore all your options and that your pain was reduced as a result of your diligence. As a community that prioritizes stewardship of our health and the financial resources we all share, this kind of information is extremely valuable.