In our practice we often see patients who are in severe back pain. These people have an MRI, X-ray and/or scan that shows an inaccurate picture of what is causing their pain. What do we mean by inaccurate picture?

Marc Darrow MD, JD. Thank you for reading my article. You can ask me your questions about degenerative disc disease using the contact form below. 

  • The MRI cannot show muscle spasms from a simple back strain which can cause excruciating pain.
  • Conversely, the MRI can show a large herniated disc which may be completely painless.

Yet that large herniated disc will send the patient to surgery. As you will read in the research below, this recommendation to surgery is considered “unsupported enthusiasm for the surgical management of discogenic back pain.”

Now surgeons are publishing new data with a tempered enthusiasm.

Here is research I saw in the European journal of orthopaedic surgery & traumatology.(1)

“(Spinal) Fusion is one of the most commonly performed spinal procedures, indicated for a wide range of spinal problems. Elimination of motion though results in accelerated degeneration of the adjacent level, known as adjacent level disease. Motion preservation surgical methods were developed in order to overcome this complication. These methods include total disc replacement, laminoplasty, interspinous implants and dynamic posterior stabilization systems. The initial enthusiasm about these methods was followed by certain concerns about their clinical usefulness and their results.”

In this study out of Greece, surgeons reassessed a few of the most commonly performed spinal fusion alternative surgical procedures. “(Motion preservation surgical methods) include total disc replacement, laminoplasty (cutting away of bone and other pressure causing material on the nerves), interspinous implants (spacers to hold nerve pathways open) and dynamic posterior stabilization systems (not a fusion but similar.).”

While they appear to be realistic surgical options for a complicated spinal problem, the initial enthusiasm about these methods was followed by certain concerns about their clinical usefulness and their results.

  • Not everyone is a good candidate for this type of spinal surgery: The main indications for total disc replacement are degenerative disc disease, but the numerous contraindications for this method make it difficult to find the right candidate.
  • Application of interspinous implants has shown good results in patients with spinal stenosis, but a more precise definition is needed regarding the severity of spinal stenosis up to which these implants can be used.
  • Laminoplasty has several advantages and less complications compared to fusion and laminectomy in patients with cervical myelopathy/radiculopathy.
  • Dynamic posterior stabilization could replace conventional fusion in certain cases, but also in this case the results are successful only in mild to moderate cases.”

One of the concerns was the need to repeat the spinal surgery, to fix something the spinal surgery made worse or did not correct the first time. Repeat spinal surgery falls under the laws of diminishing returns. This was in the Asian Spine Journal (2) :

  • “Repeat spinal surgery is a treatment option with diminishing returns. Although more than 50% of primary spinal surgeries are successful, no more than 30%, 15%, and 5% of the patients experience a successful outcome after the second, third, and fourth surgeries, respectively
  • “The decision to perform surgery in patients with predominantly axial (mechanical low back pain) pain should be made with the understanding that many patients may not respond to the treatment.”

A study in Journal of back and musculoskeletal rehabilitation  (3) offers the same warnings:. “Four to fifty percent of patients will develop Failed Back Surgery Syndrome following lumbar spine surgery. Repeated surgeries lead to escalating costs and subsequent decreases in success rate.”

What is being said in the above research and the below research is, these surgeries may not be as helpful as doctors thought. 

In an editorial from the Department of Neurosurgery, University of Virginia, doctors found: “Without prospective trials with non-conflicted surgeons and standardized selection criteria, the true role for sacroiliac joint fusion procedures in the treatment of chronic lower back pain will remain murky. The consequences of the unsupported enthusiasm for the surgical management of discogenic back pain still negatively impacts the public perception of spinal surgeons.(4)


Spinal Surgery: Some carry risk without benefit


This is highlighted segments from the University of  Minnesota’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery’s research in ClinicoEconomics and outcomes research:

  • “Back pain is complex to diagnose and expensive to treat . . .inaccurate diagnosis leading to treatments that do not target the underlying disease exposes patients to risk without benefit.
  • Poor outcomes after spine surgery are so common that practitioners in this area have created a unique term for this condition: failed back surgery syndrome.
  • Although the number of reported studies of lumbar fusion is large, well-controlled studies have shown that only approximately 60% of patients derive clinically important benefits from lumbar surgery.”(5) 

The 60% may be considered an improvement over results found in other studies. In a heavily cited 2006 landmark study from the Schulthess Clinic in Zurich  Switzerland, doctors reported on 17 patients with chronic low back pain, with a positive response to specific diagnostic tests for sacroiliac joint dysfunction who a bilateral sacroiliac fusion procedure.

At the time of follow-up (on average 39 months after surgery),

  • Of the 17 patients: three patients reported moderate or absent pain
  • Eight had 8 marked pain and
  • 6 severe pain.
  • Eighteen percent of the patients were satisfied, but in the other 82% the results were not acceptable.
  • Reoperation was performed in 65% of the patients.
  • Our results with bilateral posterior SIJ fusion were disappointing, which may be related with difficulties in patient selection, as well as with surgical technique. Better diagnostic procedures and possibly other surgical techniques might provide more predictable results, but this remains to be demonstrated.(6)

NY Times: Surgery was no better than alternative nonsurgical treatments


In the August 3, 2016 edition of the New York Times, author Gina Kolata wrote:

  • “It looks as if the onus is on patients to ask what evidence, if any, shows that surgery is better than other options. Take what happened with spinal fusion, an operation that welds together adjacent vertebrae to relieve back pain from worn-out discs. Unlike most operations, it actually was tested in four clinical trials. The conclusion: Surgery was no better than alternative nonsurgical treatments, like supervised exercise and therapy to help patients deal with their fear of back pain. In both groups, the pain usually diminished or went away.

Back to MRI assessment

Is MRI to blame? Doctors at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands questioned whether or not MRI has any value in determining sciatica treatment or diagnosis and why surgeons rely so heavily on the readings.(7) We often see patients who visited the doctor who had unsupported enthusiasm for sacroiliac joint dysfunction surgery because they had an MRI showing a herniation between the L5 and S1 vertebrae and a prognosis of impending surgery.


Complicated fusion surgery can be avoided if we look at the spinal ligaments


Many times a patient will come into our office with a nondescript diagnosis of back pain and/or accompanying hip pain. Despite numerous treatments which may include epidural steroid or cortisone injection, the patient still has pain and now has been recommended to a spinal procedure because something has shown up an an MRI. But is it in fact the disc problems on MRI causing the patient’s pain? Medical investigators are asking, “maybe we should look at the spinal ligaments?”

In a paper Japanese doctors came up with a scoring system to help clinicians determine if sacroiliac joint pain was originating from the posterior longitudinal ligament of the spine.

  • This pain manifests in not only the buttocks but also the groin and lower extremities and may be difficult to discern from pain secondary to other lumbar disorders, such as degenerative disc disease and stenosis – problems that usually mean surgery.(8)

The ligaments are important as attested to by researchers at University of Mississippi Medical Center. “As important as the vertebral ligaments are in maintaining the integrity of the spinal column and protecting the contents of the spinal canal, a single detailed review of their anatomy and function is missing in the literature.”(9)

  •  Ligaments and tendons are weakened by age, overuse syndrome, or injury. In the sacroiliac joint, because it supports the torso and has large nerves running through it all the way to the feet, these injuries to the sacroiliac ligaments can mimic other injuries such as disc herniation and lead to an incorrect diagnosis which could lead to an unnecessary lower back surgery. For more on this subject please see my article “When a simple sprain is mistaken for degenerative disc disease

Why not get a consultation to see if the ligaments are the cause of your back pain before your embark on surgery?


Published research from the Darrow Stem Cell Institute

In a Darrow Stem Cell Institute research article published in the Biomedical Journal of Scientific & Technical Research (BJSTR), July 2018. we discussed the use and outcomes of bone marrow stem cell treatment in low back pain patients.For the full article please visit this link.

These are the learning points of this research:

  • Even though the diagnosis may be a herniated disc, facet arthropathy, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, scoliosis, spondylosis, spondylolisthesis, or other pathology, we have found for the past twenty years, with thousands of successfully treated patients, that the actual pain generator may not even be noted in the diagnosis.
  • With the risk of adverse complications of surgery and ineffectiveness of epidural injections, bone marrow concentrate (BMC) offers a promising treatment to treat lower back pain. BMC contains mesenchymal stem cells that have the ability to differentiate into muscle, cartilage, and bone, in addition to releasing trophic factors that enhance tissue regeneration.
  • The four patients included in this study underwent at least one treatment of BMC injection to the entheses of muscles, fascia, and ligaments surrounding the lumbar spine.
  • At one-year follow-up all four patients experienced a decrease in resting and active pain. Patients also reported a mean 80% total overall improvement and were able to perform daily activities with less difficulty.
  • These encouraging results warrant further investigation of the full potential of BMC injections for lower back pain.

We have published a new study on PRP for chronic low back pain.
The study appears in the journal 
Cogent Medicine.

This research gives an insight into what level of treatment success we can have with certain back pain conditions and how many treatments the patient should expect towards achieving their treatment goals.Full Article: Marc Darrow, Brent Shaw, Schmidt Nicholas, Xian Li & Gabby Boeger | Tsai-Ching Hsu (Reviewing editor:) (2019) Treatment of unresolved lower back pain with platelet-rich plasma injections, Cogent Medicine, DOI: 10.1080/2331205X.2019.1581449

In our research, Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain with Platelet-Rich Plasma Injections, we wrote:

  • Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) is a non-invasive modality that has been used to treat musculoskeletal conditions for the past two decades. Based on our research, there were no publications that studied the effect of PRP on unresolved lower back pain. The aim of this study was to report the clinical outcomes of patients who received PRP injections to treat unresolved lower back pain.

Methods: 

  • 67 patients underwent a series one, two, or three PRP injections into the ligaments, muscle, and fascia surrounding the lumbar spine.
  • Patients who received two treatments received injections a mean 24 days apart and patients who received three treatments received injections a mean 20.5 days apart.
  • Baseline and post-treatment outcomes of resting pain, active pain, lower functionality scale, and overall improvement percentage were compared to baseline and between groups.

Results: 

  • Patients who received one PRP injection reported 36.33% overall improvement and experienced significant improvements in active pain relief. These same patients experienced improvements in resting pain and functionality score, yet these results were not statistically significant.
  • Patients who received a series of two and three treatments experienced significant decreases in resting pain and active pain and reported 46.17% and 54.91% total overall improvement respectively. In addition, they were able to perform daily activities with less difficulty than prior to treatment.

We are currently conducting research on umbilical cord stem cell therapy

Ask Dr. Darrow about non-surgical treatment options for Back pain


A leading provider of stem cell therapy, platelet rich plasma and prolotherapy
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PHONE: (800) 300-9300


1 Gelalis ID, Papadopoulos DV, Giannoulis DK, Tsantes AG, Korompilias AV. Spinal motion preservation surgery: indications and applications. Eur J Orthop Surg Traumatol. 2018 Apr;28(3):335-342. doi: 10.1007/s00590-017-2052-3. Epub 2017 Oct 6. Review. PubMed PMID: 28986691.
2 Daniell JR, Osti OL. Failed Back Surgery Syndrome: A Review Article. Asian Spine J. 2018;12(2):372-379.
3 Clancy C, Quinn A, Wilson F. The aetiologies of failed back surgery syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of back and musculoskeletal rehabilitation. 2017 Jan 1;30(3):395-402.
4 Shaffrey CI, Smith JS. Editorial: Stabilization of the sacroiliac joint. Neurosurg Focus. 2013 Jul;35(2 Suppl):Editorial. doi: 10.3171/2013.V2.FOCUS13273.
5 Polly DW, Cher D. Ignoring the sacroiliac joint in chronic low back pain is costly. ClinicoEconomics and Outcomes Research: CEOR. 2016;8:23-31. doi:10.2147/CEOR.S97345.
6 Schütz U1, Grob D. Poor outcome following bilateral sacroiliac joint fusion for degenerative sacroiliac joint syndrome. Acta Orthop Belg. 2006 Jun;72(3):296-308.
7 el Barzouhi A, Vleggeert-Lankamp CL, Lycklama à Nijeholt GJ, Van der Kallen BF, van den Hout WB, Koes BW, Peul WC; Leiden-Hague Spine Intervention Prognostic Study Group. Predictive value of MRI in decision making for disc surgery for sciatica. J Neurosurg Spine. 2013 Dec;19(6):678-87. doi: 10.3171/2013.9.SPINE13349. Epub 2013 Oct 18.
8 Kurosawa D, Murakami E, Ozawa H, Koga H, Isu T, Chiba Y, Abe E, Unoki E, Musha Y, Ito K, Katoh S, Yamaguchi T. A Diagnostic Scoring System for Sacroiliac Joint Pain Originating from the Posterior Ligament.Pain Med. 2016 Jun 10. pii: pnw117..
9. Butt AM, Gill C, Demerdash A, Watanabe K, Loukas M, Rozzelle CJ, Tubbs RS. A comprehensive review of the sub-axial ligaments of the vertebral column: part I anatomy and function. Childs Nerv Syst. 2015 May 1.

There is controversy in the medical community about umbilical cord blood stem cells. Some insist that the injectable solution contains abundant live umbilical cord blood stem cells. Some suggest that the stem cells are not alive. I have seen the flow cytometry showing live stem cells. The research shows that these stem cells release cytokines and growth factors that awaken native stem cells.  I have tried this treatment on myself for both shoulders and knees. After great success, I started using this treatment on patients. I still use PRP and bone marrow depending on the patient’s pathology and requirements. To date the results are excellent for all of these treatments. We are in the process of doing a study on cord blood stem cells (we have done others on bone marrow and PRP) to see which treatments are the most successful. We are awaiting more long term results.