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Some Flags for Low Back Pain Screening Should be Yellow, Not Red

Low-Back-Pain for OBuzzAn estimated 85% of all adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives. So-called “red flag” questions were developed to help primary care providers determine whether a patient’s back pain warranted an escalation of care, either through advanced imaging or referral to a spine specialist. However, in the March 7, 2018 issue of JBJS, Premkumar et al. found that, despite the widespread use of red flag questions, it appears that they have limited clinical usefulness when applied in isolation in a referral spine practice setting.

The authors analyzed the responses to commonly asked red flag questions from more than 9,000 patients presenting to a spine center with low back pain. They found that >90% of the patients had a positive response to at least one of the questions, but only 8% actually had a red flag diagnosis. Furthermore, the authors found that a negative response to one or two of the questions did not preclude a red flag diagnosis. No single red flag question had a sensitivity >75% or a clinically useful negative likelihood ratio—a measure of a screening tool’s ability to rule out a diagnosis.

Importantly, however, certain combinations of positive answers were predictive of specific disease processes. For example, a history of trauma in patients over the age of 50 years was predictive for a diagnosis of spinal compression fracture, and back pain in a patient with a history of a primary oncologic diagnosis should alert physicians to the possibility of metastatic disease. Conversely, the authors say that low back pain that awakens a patient from sleep was not found to be a useful parameter for making any diagnosis.

This is the first large-scale study to evaluate the clinical utility of these questions in the setting of low back pain, and the authors question their usefulness as screening tools. While the concept behind red flag questions remains valid, the rigid application of such questions in decision making regarding advanced imaging or additional testing is not appropriate. The utility of red flag screening questions for low back pain needs additional testing, especially in the primary care setting.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Cord Compression Reflects Neurological Outcomes after Thoracolumbar Injuries

cord compression for OBuzzThe association between spinal cord compression and functional deficits following cervical spine trauma has been well studied using both CT and MRI. However, until now, there was little data evaluating whether that same association is true for thoracic spine injuries. In the February 21, 2018 edition of The Journal, Skeers et al. identified the same correlations between canal compromise, cord compression, and functional outcome in the T1 to L1 region.

Using retrospective data, the authors showed that the severity of neurologic deficits was associated with the amount of maximal cord compression, as measured with advanced imaging. More specifically, their univariate analysis showed that cord compression >40% was associated with a tenfold greater likelihood of complete spinal cord injury compared to cord compression <40%. This study also found that MRI measures osseous canal compromise more accurately than CT, probably because it more clearly visualizes soft tissue changes related to the posterior longitudinal ligament, ligamentum flavum, and facet capsule.

A major issue with this study (and with almost all studies that evaluate spine trauma) is that these advanced imaging techniques are temporally static; even when they’re obtained relatively soon after injury, they cannot capture the position of vertebral body fragments and posterior structure deformities that existed upon impact. This shortcoming is probably more relevant for younger patients, who are more likely to experience higher-velocity trauma.

The population in the Skeers et al. study is skewed a bit toward older patients (mean age 34.8) with relatively severe spinal injuries (mean TLICS of 7.8 and mean cord compression of 40%). These factors may highlight the roles that lower bone density and decreased soft tissue elasticity play in the setting of high-energy spine trauma.

Although the data reflect some variability, this study should help spine surgeons counsel patients and their families following these tragic injuries. The more severe the initial cord compression in the thoracic spine, the more likely there is to be severe neurologic injury without improvement.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

A Closer Look at Discrepancies in Medicaid Reimbursements

In the February 7, 2018 issue of The Journal, Lalezari et al. provide a detailed analysis of the variability in state-based Medicaid reimbursements to physicians for 10 common orthopaedic procedures, including hip and knee replacement and 5 spinal surgeries. The discrepancies in reimbursements between states, even bordering states in the same geographic region, are substantial and do not seem to follow any pattern. This phenomenon of reimbursement variability has been mentioned in podium presentations and some less comprehensive reports in the past. However, the authors of this study used a careful, methodological approach to accurately report these differences in a manner that is easy for readers to understand.

There is simply no way to rationalize this degree of variation in Medicaid reimbursement; the magnitude cannot be explained by differences in workload or practice costs because Lalezari et al. adjusted for cost of living and relative value units (RVUs). Nor does Medicaid-reimbursement variability seem to be related to Medicare reimbursement rates, as some states had Medicaid reimbursements that were higher than Medicare reimbursements for all procedures analyzed.

The orthopaedic community should not react directly to the reimbursement discrepancies presented in this article. Rather, orthopaedic surgeons, health system administrators, and patients alike should bring the variability of Medicaid reimbursements to the attention of state and federal policy makers.

Alas, I am not optimistic that this issue will gain a lot of traction given the long list of healthcare-related issues currently on the desks of state and federal lawmakers. Moreover, as the authors mention, these state-based reimbursement rates are likely related to many variables, and Lalezari et al. further observe that “health policy intended to improve access to specialty care should not solely focus on physician reimbursement.” However, consistent communication with elected officials to help explain the impact that these variable rates can have on patient care, accompanied by updated studies like this one every 2 to 4 years, would seem to be a rational response to these data.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

After TJA, Patients Living Alone Can Safely Be Discharged Home

elensreader.phpAs Fleischman et al. observe in the January 17, 2018 edition of The Journal, “there is a prevailing belief that patients living alone cannot be safely discharged directly home after total joint arthroplasty [TJA].” Not so, according to results of their Level II prospective cohort study.

The authors reviewed outcomes among a cohort of 769 patients undergoing lower-extremity arthroplasty who were discharged home, 138 of whom were living alone. While patients living alone more commonly stayed an additional night in the hospital and utilized more home-health services than patients living with others, there were no between-group differences in 90-day complication rates or unplanned clinical events, including readmissions.

These findings are reassuring, but all patients discharged home after a lower-limb arthroplasty need some support with meal preparation, personal hygiene, and other activities of daily living for the first 10 to 14 days. Clinicians should therefore adequately assess the local support system for each patient living alone in terms of family, neighbors, or friends to be sure the patient will be safe if discharged home. This crucial determination is a team exercise involving nursing, the surgeon, physical and occupational therapists, and a social worker. Fleischman et al. implicitly credit the “nurse navigator” program at their institution (Rothman Institute) with coordinating this team effort.

Investigation into these issues is very important as the orthopaedic community works to lower the costs of arthroplasty care while improving patient safety and satisfaction. If the appropriate support is in place, patients and clinicians alike would prefer that patients sleep in their own beds after discharge from joint replacement surgery.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Increased BMI Affects Femoral Morphology in Adolescents

BMI Hip for OBuzzLong-term population-based research has documented associations between high BMI and decreased longevity and increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiac complications. Musculoskeletally speaking, the risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee has been strongly associated with elevated BMI, although the impact of high BMI on the development of hip osteoarthritis has been less clearly defined.

To detail the impact of increased BMI on the developing hip, in the January 3, 2018 issue of The Journal, Novais et al. painstakingly evaluated 128 pelvic CT images from a group of adolescents presenting with abdominal pain but no prior history of hip pathology. The authors found a significant association between increasing BMI percentiles and femoral head-neck alterations, including:

  • Increased alpha angle
  • Reduced head-neck offset and epiphyseal extension, and
  • More posteriorly tilted epiphyses.

Taken together, these morphological anomalies resemble, in the authors’ words, “a post-slip or mild slipped capital femoral epiphysis [SCFE] deformity.”

While the association between elevated body mass and the risk of SCFE has long been known, the impact of high BMI on the morphology of the “normal” hip had not, until now, been described in detail. It makes intuitive mechanical sense that Novais et al. found no impact of high BMI on acetabular anatomy, but because of the orientation of the proximal femoral growth plate, it does make sense that high BMI affects the growing femoral head-neck junction.

It is my hope that consolidating these data with the abundance of other evidence about the health risks of high BMI in growing children will further coalesce worldwide efforts to lower the intake of sugar and “empty carbs” among growing children, and will further spur investment in programs to increase physical activity among this vulnerable age group.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Hip Arthroscopy: What and Who Account for Rising Utilization?

Hip Arthroscopy for OBuzzHip arthroscopy for labral pathology and cam and pincer impingement has become increasingly established as an effective procedure in the hands of experienced surgeons. However, as with all technically complex orthopaedic procedures, success entails not only sound technique, but also appropriate patient selection, meticulous pre- and intraoperative setup, and appropriate use of intraoperative fluoroscopy. Thankfully, we have a community of leaders in arthroscopy who share and teach these details.

In the December 20, 2017 issue of The Journal, Duchman et al. use the ABOS Part-II exam database to analyze who among recent graduates of orthopaedic residencies is performing hip arthroscopies. Overall, between 2006 and 2015, the authors found that 643 of 6,987 ABOS candidates (9.2%) had performed ≥1 hip arthroscopy; nearly three-quarters of those reported sports-medicine fellowship training. More than two-thirds of candidates performing hip arthroscopy performed ≤5 such procedures; conversely, only 6.5% of those candidates performed 35% of all the hip arthroscopies identified in the database.

The concerning suggestion from these findings is that the increase in hip arthroscopy utilization comes from an increased number of individuals performing the surgery, rather than from an increase in procedure volume among individual surgeons. One question this study does not address is whether there has been an increase in the prevalence of hip pathology that warrants an increased utilization of this procedure. If not, an alternative explanation, which Wennberg et al. posit in the Dartmouth Atlas, is that procedure utilization expands in relationship to the distribution of provider resources and medical opinion in the local community.

I believe that hip arthroscopy is technically challenging and that the quality of the outcome is very likely related to the per-surgeon volume of procedures performed. This makes it incumbent upon all orthopaedists who offer this procedure to actively evaluate their outcomes with validated instruments so the practitioner and her/his patients can objectively understand and discuss what the results are likely to be.

In a commentary on this study, Rupesh Tarwala, MD calls for an outcomes analysis of patients who were treated with hip arthroscopy by ABOS Part-II candidates. I concur completely, and would more specifically ask that the cohort of surgeons evaluated in this study by Duchman et al. collect and report their 1- and 2-year outcomes to The Journal.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Outpatient Knee Replacement Complications: How Important Are They?

Outpatient TKA for OBuzzIn the December 6, 2017 issue of The Journal, Arshi et al. report on a detailed analysis of a large administrative database, looking specifically at one-year complications associated with outpatient versus standard inpatient knee replacement. This type of analysis is crucial because of the rapidly growing interest in outpatient joint replacement among patients, payers, and the orthopaedic community.

The data convince me that these outpatient procedures should proceed, but with a little more caution. Although the absolute complication rates in both surgical settings were very low, after adjusting for age, sex, and comorbidities, the authors found a higher relative risk of several surgical and medical complications among outpatients—including component failure, infection, knee stiffness requiring manipulation under anesthesia, and deep vein thrombosis.

One important element that is lacking in this analysis is adjustment for surgeon/hospital volume. We know from important work by Katz and others that patients managed at centers and by surgeons with greater volumes of total knee replacement have lower risks of perioperative adverse events.

These results from Arshi et al. are definitely not a call to stop the expansion of outpatient joint replacement protocols. Instead, I think this study should prompt every joint-replacement center to analyze its risk-adjusted inpatient and outpatient outcomes—and to ensure, as these authors emphasize, that outpatients receive the same level of attention to rehabilitation, antibiotic administration, and thromboprophylaxis as inpatients.

Enhancing outpatient knee-replacement protocols will serve local communities well, and the nationwide orthopaedic community will receive further confirmation that outpatient joint replacement is a move in the right direction.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Pulsatile Lavage Harms Muscle in Rat Model of Blast Injury

Rat Limb for OBuzzBasic science investigations into clinically relevant orthopaedic conditions are very common—and often very fruitful. What’s not very common is seeing results from large, multicenter randomized trials published in the same time frame as high-quality in vivo basic-science research on the same clinical topic.

But the uncommon has occurred. In the November 1, 2017 issue of The Journal, Chiaramonti et al. present research on the effects of 20-psi pulsatile lavage versus 1-psi bulb-syringe irrigation on soft tissue in a rat model of blast injuries. With support from the US Department of Defense, Chiaramonti et al. developed an elegant animal study that found radiological and histological evidence that lavage under pressure—previously thought to be critical to removing contamination in high-energy open fractures—results in muscle necrosis and wound complications.

Although none of the rats developed heterotopic ossification during the 6-month study period, the authors plausibly suggest that the muscle injury and dystrophic calcification they revealed “may potentiate the formation of heterotopic ossification by creating a favorable local environment.” Heterotopic ossification is an unfortunately common sequela in patients who suffer blast-related limb amputations.

The aforementioned rare alignment between basic-research findings and clinical findings in people relates to a large multicenter randomized clinical trial recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. That study found that one-year reoperation rates among nearly 2,500 patients treated surgically for open-fracture wounds were similar whether high, low, or very low irrigation pressures were used. This is a case where the clinical advice from basic-study authors Chiaramonti et al. to keep “delivery device irrigation pressure below the 15 to 20-psi range” when managing open fractures is based on very solid ground.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Long-term Results Show No Advantage to “Minimalist” THA

Minimal Incision THA for OBuzzThe debate regarding minimally invasive/minimal incision total hip arthroplasty (THA) has been simmering for a decade and a half. When assessing the impact of adult reconstruction procedures, patients and treating physicians alike are most interested in longer-term results. Improved return of function in the first 3 to 6 weeks is of some value to all patients—and perhaps of great value to younger patients—and that has been one of the purported advantages of the “minimalist” approach. But it is the long-term results that really matter.

In the October 18, 2017 issue of The Journal, Stevenson et al. provide 10-year results from a 2005 randomized trial of small-incision posterior hip arthroplasty, and they confirm it adds no clinical, radiographic, or implant-survivorship benefit when compared with a standard posterior approach. An extra caveat here is that these procedures, originally done in 2003-2004, were undertaken by a highly experienced surgeon who had performed >300 minimal-incision THAs. In the hands of surgeons with less experience, smaller incisions may result in suboptimal component positioning and other complications, a point emphasized by Stevenson et al. and by Daniel Berry in his JBJS editorial accompanying the original study.

This long-term data is of great value to patients and surgeons alike. It is my hope that such high-quality evidence will temper the claims used in marketing materials that hype minimally invasive approaches, to which hip surgeons are routinely subjected.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Aggressive Treatment Improves QOL in Many Cases of Spinal Metastases

swiontkowski marc colorA significant portion of metastatic disease comes with no clear identification of a primary tumor; this is unfortunately the case with many spinal metastases. In the October 4, 2017 issue of The Journal, Ma et al. evaluate the survival and patient-reported quality-of-life (QOL) outcomes for patients with spinal metastases from cancer of unknown primary origin.

Their prospective longitudinal study confirms that a more aggressive strategy that combines surgery and radiation therapy results in better QOL (as measured with the four-domain FACT-G instrument) than radiation alone. There was no significant difference in survival time between the two groups. In a subgroup analysis of patients receiving surgery, those who underwent circumferential decompression had significantly better functional and physical well-being and higher total QOL scores than those who underwent decompressive laminectomy.

These findings emphasize the critical role of shared decision making in such difficult situations. A dire diagnosis with poor statistical chances of long-term survival does not mean that patients should not be informed of treatment options and have the opportunity to opt for an aggressive surgical approach, especially if that decision is likely to result in improved QOL. Let us endeavor to compassionately provide patients with the facts, as we understand them, and let them select from among the medical and surgical options that are at their disposal. More often than not, in this sad scenario, it seems aggressive is better in terms of quality of life.