In March, a team of orthopedic surgeons in China reported that they had successfully treated low back pain by injecting a commonly available chemical into their patients’ spines. The results of this simple and novel treatment were so extraordinary that they seemed to belong in an infomercial rather than a medical journal: Ninety percent of the patients experienced total or near-total relief.
How could it be? The type of low back pain featured in the study is notoriously difficult to treat. Caused by wear and tear to spinal disks, it often requires medication, cortisone shots, physical therapy, surgery, or all of the above—none of which is guaranteed to work. And yet the researchers claimed that a single shot of the chemical, known as methylene blue, relieved pain for two years in most patients.
“The results were astounding,” says Nikolai Bogduk, MD, a professor of pain medicine at the Newcastle Bone and Joint Institute, in Newcastle, Australia. “If validated, this treatment will change the landscape monumentally. Patients will be able to get a one-stop, rapid fix—much like having abdominal pain fixed by having their appendix out or their gallbladder removed. But with less risk.”
Dr. Bogduk was even more effusive in an editorial that accompanied the new study, which appears in the April issue of the journal Pain. The procedure would make spinal surgery “essentially obsolete” and would be “worthy of nomination for a Nobel Prize,” he wrote, “if”—and here’s the catch—“the results are true.”
Don’t call your doctor to schedule an appointment just yet, in other words. While spine experts acknowledge that the treatment described in the study is credible, they are quick to add that the results may, in fact, be too good to be true. Other researchers need to replicate the study’s findings before the treatment is put into use, they say. Plus, if injected incorrectly, the dye can be toxic—and could even make back pain much worse.
“If the results worldwide are what is reported here, then, yes, the treatment of back pain will change dramatically and it’s worthy of significant attention,” says neurosurgeon L. Gerard Toussaint III, MD, an assistant professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in College Station.
Experts say that’s a big “if.” And yet, if future research yields results even close to what the Chinese surgeons reported, methylene blue could offer hope to the millions of people in the U.S. with chronic disk-related back pain.
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