Post-Op Painkillers Tied to Deaths After Spinal Fusion

Middle-aged men appear most at risk from overdosing following the surgery, study found

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FRIDAY, April 3 (HealthDay News) -- A new study links painkillers to one in five deaths among people who have had spinal fusion surgery (also known as lumbar fusion) to help relieve lower back pain.

Among this group, middle-aged men with degenerative disc disease (DDD) ran a sevenfold greater risk of either accidental or suicidal analgesic poisoning compared to the other surgical patients.

The findings raised questions among the researchers about the effectiveness of the surgery and the post-op medications. Spinal fusion has become more popular in recent years despite being riskier than less complicated back surgeries aimed at reducing pain.

The study, published in the April 1 issue of Spine, looked at almost 2,400 patients who had spinal fusion surgery between 1994 and 2001.

Of the 103 patients who died in the three years following surgery, 21 percent involved either accidental overdose or suicide involving pain medications. These tended to be younger surgical patients, while older ones were more likely to die of cancer, heart disease or other causes.

"Analgesic-related deaths are responsible for more deaths and more potential life lost among workers who underwent spinal fusion than any other cause," lead researcher Sham Maghout Juratli of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, said in a news release issued by the journal's publisher.

The researchers said DDD patients, especially the highest-risk category of 45- to 54-year-old men, should be the given extra attention in hopes of reducing mortality rates.

More information

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has more about spinal fusion.

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