WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
March 9, 2009 -- An experimental treatment that involves injections of ozone
gas into the spine is showing promise for the relief of herniated disc-related
lower back pain.
Its supporters say ozone therapy could become a standard treatment for the
condition within the next five years in the United States, but a back pain
specialist who spoke to WebMD remains unconvinced.
A researcher who has treated close to 50 people with a combination of ozone
and oxygen since 2005 says between 50% and 60% of patients with pain from
herniated discs could be good candidates for the minimally invasive
Interventional radiologist Kieran Murphy, MD, of the University of Toronto
says ozone therapy could even help some patients avoid back surgery.
Murphy presented findings from his own animal studies today at the annual
meeting of the Society of Interventional Radiology in San Diego.
The studies suggest that ozone therapy works by shrinking herniated
As many as 80% of adults in the U.S. suffer from lower back pain at some
point in their lives, and for many, the cause is a herniated disc.
The condition occurs when the spongy cushions, or discs, that serve as shock
absorbers for the spine become inflamed and bulge or break open. A herniated
disc of the lower spine can cause pain in the back, buttocks, and legs with
numbness and weakness when bulging discs press against nearby nerves.
About half of the people with herniated disc-related pain will recover
within a month, and nine out of 10 will get better within three to six months
without surgical treatment.
“About 10% of people with herniated discs end up requiring surgery, and
about 90% of patients who have surgery get better,” says Scott D. Boden, MD,
who directs the Emory Orthopedics and Spine Center in Atlanta.
Because so many people with pain from herniated discs get better on their
own, Boden tells WebMD that it is hard to prove that treatments like ozone
therapy actually work.
“It is difficult to determine if patients who report less pain are
responding to these treatments or just getting better on their own,” he
Murphy tells WebMD that in recent years more than 14,000 lower back pain
patients have been treated with ozone therapy in Europe, mostly in Italy, where
the procedure was developed.
He says he first became aware of the treatment in 2003 while attending a
medical conference in Venice.
“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘This is either madness or
genius,’” he says.
He became so intrigued by the treatment that he invented and patented his
own oxygen/ozone delivery device that is about the size of a cigar.
Computer imaging guides the needle used to deliver the ozone/oxygen
treatment to the herniated disc. Patients require no more than a local
anesthetic, and Murphy says most of his patients have reported improvements in
pain within 48 hours of the treatment.
At the San Diego meeting, Murphy presented his analysis of 12 studies
involving more than 8,000 patients treated with the ozone/oxygen in Italy and
elsewhere in Europe.
He says the analysis suggests that ozone therapy is as effective as surgery
for relieving pain caused by a herniated disc, with a much lower incidence of
complications and much quicker recovery times.
“I do believe that this will become a standard therapy, but I understand why
many people within the (medical) community would be skeptical,” he says.
Boden is one of those people.
He says until rigorously designed studies are conducted, the usefulness of
ozone therapy for the treatment of herniated disc pain remains unknown.
SOURCES:Society of Interventional Radiology Scientific Meeting 2009, San Diego,
March 7-12, 2009.Kieran J. Murphy, MD, interventional neuroradiologist; vice chair and chief
of medical imaging, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.Scott D. Boden, professor of orthopedic surgery, Emory University School of
Medicine; director, Emory Orthopedics and Spine Center, Atlanta; spokesman,
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
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