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Time to reconsider steroid injections in the spine?


To the Editor: We thank Harris and Buchbinder for their focus on interventional pain procedures.1 However, their description of the procedure they discuss has not been standard practice in pain medicine in Australia for many years.

They misrepresent the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) number 39013 to solely include facet joint injections, whereas it includes local anaesthetic medial branch blocks, which are an evidence-based diagnostic test for posterior elements as a source of spinal pain, and can be therapeutic in their own right.2

The number needed to treat (NNT) is the number of patients that need to be treated for one to benefit compared with a placebo or sham in a clinical trial. The ideal NNT is one. After a positive medial branch block response, radiofrequency medial branch neurotomies — a procedure with an NNT ranging from two patients3 to 4.4 patients4 treated for one patient to receive effective relief of spinal pain — creates a “therapeutic window” in which ongoing spinal rehabilitation can occur.

From the 35 000 MBS number 39013 procedures performed in 2012, we can infer that fewer than…