When Is Back Surgery Helpful?

Mary Cummings tried everything to relieve her back pain. Nothing worked, reports CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

"My pain radiated down my leg and it would appear spontaneously and I couldn't predict it," Cummings says. "It was very difficult."

Dr. James Weinstein of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center diagnosed Cummings with one of the most common back ailments for people older than 55: spinal stenosis, or narrowing that pinches nerves. One of Mary's vertebrae bones had also slipped forward over her spine.

Weinstein is leading an ongoing study of treatment for back pain. Results out today in the New England Journal of Medicine show patients with the condition did substantially better with surgery than patients without.

"Patients who underwent surgery got relief within six to 12 weeks, very rapid," Weinstein says.

Says Cummings: "I would have been someone incapacitated and disabled without this surgery."

But Weinstein's previous research on another common back problem — the herniated disc — showed surgery is not necessarily better than other therapy.

It's important information, because spending for back surgery on Medicare patients alone has increased 500 percent in the last decade.

"The question we have to ask is, are we actually making those patients better," Weinstein asks. "And is spending more money for all these spine operations making a difference in the health of our country? I'm not convinced it is."

Results from Weinstein's third and final study of the most common back ailments will be released later this year.
  • Christine Lagorio

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