Low Back Pain in Older Adults: Are We Utilizing Healthcare Resources Wisely?


Debra K. Weiner, MD, 5750 Centre Ave., Suite 400, Pittsburgh, PA 15206, USA. Tel: 412-665-8051; Fax: 412-665-8067; E-mail: dweiner@pitt.edu.


Objectives.  1) To examine recent change in prevalence and Medicare-associated charges for non-invasive/minimally invasive evaluation and treatment of nonspecific low back pain (LBP); and 2) to examine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) utilization appropriateness in older adults with chronic low back pain (CLBP).

Design.  Two cross-sectional surveys of 1) national (1991–2002) and Pennsylvania (2000–2002) Medicare data; and 2) patients aged ≥ 65 years with CLBP.

Setting.  Outpatient data.

Participants.  Patients aged ≥ 65 years with LBP.

Measurements.  Study 1: Outpatient national and Pennsylvania Part A Medicare data were examined for number of patients and charges for all patients, and for those with nonspecific LBP. Total number of visits and charges for imaging studies, physical therapy (PT), and spinal injections was also examined for Pennsylvania. Study 2: 111 older adults with CLBP were interviewed regarding presence of red flags necessitating imaging and history of having a lumbar MRI, neurogenic claudication (NC), and back surgery.

Results.  Study 1: Between 1991 and 2002, there was a 42.5% increase in total Medicare patients, 131.7% increase in LBP patients, 310% increase in total charges, and 387.2% increase in LBP charges. In Pennsylvania (2000–2002), there was a 5.5% increase in LBP patients and 33.2% increase in charges (0.2% for PT, 59.4% for injections, 41.9% for MRI/CT, and 19.3% for X rays). Study 2: None of the 111 participants had red flags and 61% had undergone MRIs (29% with NC, 24% with failed back surgery syndrome).

Conclusion.  LBP documentation and diagnostic studies are increasing in Medicare beneficiaries, and evidence suggests that MRIs may often be ordered unnecessarily. Injection procedures appear to account for a significant proportion of LBP-associated costs. More studies are needed to examine the appropriateness with which imaging procedures and non-invasive/minimally invasive treatments are utilized, and their effect on patient outcomes.