New treatment methods help patients with weak vertebrae

New treatment methods help patients with weak vertebrae

In the past, patients suffering from osteoporosis who broke a vertebra had few treatment options besides wearing a back brace and waiting to heal.  When the pain became really intense, doctors could only offer powerful narcotics, but in the past few years patients have been offered new treatment methods, including vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty.

Quickly becoming the choice treatment methods for patients with bones so weak they are at risk for breaking their vertebrae, some experts question how well the options really work.  Vertebroplasty is a treatment where a form of cement is injected into the broken spinal bone, and though doctors are not sure why the treatment helps, or if it even does, some patients have reported success with the method.

However, some research hints vertebroplasty may be harmful in the long run because when one vertebra is shored up, adjacent ones may become more likely to break.  Use of the hot acrylic bone cement could be to blame for shoring up the spine or destroying the nerve endings that transmit pain, or vertebroplasty’s reported success may just be having a placebo effect. 

Kyphoplasty is a similar procedure as vertebroplasty but involves inserting a balloon into the vertebra and inflating it to restore the bone’s shape before injecting cement.  Both treatment options are becoming so commonplace that, according to an osteoporosis researcher at Columbia University, Dr. Ethel Siris, a patient visiting an emergency room with back pain because of a fractured vertebra will likely leave after having one of the two procedures performed.

Widespread use of the procedures when doctors do not know its real impact is concerning many doctors because the results just being accepted and not being questioned like they should.  From 2001 to 2004, the number of vertebroplasties nearly doubled from 14,000 to more than 27,000.  Even supporters of the procedures question the long-term effects, and in 2002, a group of U.S. researchers received a federal grant for a clinical trial that would be the first to rigorously assess vertebroplasty. 

Unfortunately, it has been difficult to find patients in severe pain willing to enter a trial that can result in them receiving only a placebo.  In addition, doctors have been reluctant to suggest their patients take part in the trial, leaving investigators to seek subjects overseas.  The researchers admit the study’s prospects appear grim, meaning critical questions will be left unanswered. 

Vertebroplasty was first introduced in the United Sates in 1993 after conventional medicine was unable to relieve a woman from excruciating, unrelenting pain because her breast cancer spread to her spine.  Her doctors, Dr. Mary Jensen and Dr. Jacques Dion, interventional neuroradiologists at the University of Virginia Health System, remembered a lecture by a French doctor saying she had injected a form of cement into the vertebrae of cancer patients to relieve their pain, so Jensen and Dion tried the procedure with success. 


Find a Lawyer Now

Search for a Personal Injury lawyer in your state or province by using the forms to the right.