Low back problems are a necessary evil of being human due to our anatomy and physiology. This is of great importance in many medicolegal claims in which an injury or repetitive stress exposure is alleged to have caused low back problems, thereby attempting to shift responsibility for the costs imposed by low back problems from the individual and his or her health insurance (if applicable) to the liability policyholder/employer and the liability/workers compensation insurance carrier. The high prevalence of low back problems in the general population makes differentiating between idiopathic problems and those caused by an accident or repetitive stress exposure extremely difficult. It is also complicated by the fact that the idea of a manifestation of a preexisting condition is at odds with our folk understanding of temporal proximity and causality, i.e. if two things happen near in time, we tend to assume they are causally related, with the first thing causing the second thing.
Human beings perform many cognitive tasks exceptionally well. Accurately assigning causation is not one of them. In particular, we are prone to making a priori assumptions about how things work and then confirming our assumptions (confirmation bias) post hoc (post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). Low back pain is a notable example: we often associate low back pain with lumbar disc pathology discovered on post-injury MRI despite the fact that we know from the medical literature large percentages of the general population have similar MRI findings but no low back pain. We make the assumption based on our assessment of human anatomy and physiology that lumbar discs work in a certain way and when they are compromised it must cause discernible effects such as low back pain. We then see evidence of compromised lumbar discs in persons who complain of low back pain following an injury or exposure and we leap to the bias-confirming post hoc conclusion that the pathology or compromised condition is causing the pain. So strong is this impulse that we ascribe causation even though we are well-aware of the medical literature demonstrating that disc pathology is an exceedingly poor proxy for low back pain. The coup de grace of this faulty reasoning is the post hoc association between disc pathology and pain: physicians will regularly conclude that a specific event or long term exposure caused a herniated disc despite the person being in a population cohort in which it is at least as likely than not that herniated disc was present before the injury or exposure. The only reasonable way one could reach this conclusion is with a pre-injury MRI showing there was not a herniated disc.
The problem with this sort of faulty reasoning is that it can lead to treatment that is extraordinarily expensive but ineffective. In a low back pain claim with post-injury evidence of a herniated disc, the treatment is often a discectomy/laminectomy with or without fusion. If the herniated disc was not causing the pain, the surgery will have been unnecessary. While the placebo effect will almost certainly result in some short term improvement, the long term outcomes are likely to be, at best, no different than they would have been with conservative therapy because the treatment will have been aimed at discal pathology that was benign. The triers of fact in the medicolegal systems will, however, require the workers compensation or liability carriers to absorb the costs of surgery, including non-medical costs that are recoverable under the different systems (such as indemnity payments in worker’s compensation or wage loss and pain and suffering in personal injury), because they are likely to believe the opinion that the herniated disc is the problem. This belief is based on the folk (mis)understanding of cause and effect.
There is an expression in statistics that has been borrowed by cognitive psychologists: regression to the mean. It simply holds that unusual states, events, or findings tend to be temporary and regress over time to the average or status quo. This is true with many non-malignant medical conditions as well. This is both profound and somewhat dispiriting because it means that most of these conditions will get better over time regardless of treatment. It is hence a fallacy to ascribe efficacy to treatment or causation based on recovery following treatment when a condition simply regresses to the mean because it would have regressed to the mean regardless of treatment.
Much attention has been paid to this phenomenon in the context of overusing antibiotics. Most people who go the doctor for upper respiratory infections wait to seek treatment until the condition has been present for some time. They then go to the doctor, ask for antibiotics, take antibiotics, and recover from the condition. These persons then assume that the antibiotics caused the improvement. The problem with the assumption is that most of these persons almost certainly had viral infections that simply got better according to the natural course of the condition. ANTIOBIOTICS DO NOT AFFECT VIRUSES AT ALL. The fact that the condition improved after starting antibiotics was due to the simple fact that the person started the antibiotics at about the time the condition would improve on its own. The antibiotics had nothing to do with the condition improving because ANTIBIOTICS ARE 100% INEFFECTIVE AGAINST VIRUSES.
The same holds true for many persons with low back pain who undergo surgery to remove a herniated disc. Low back pain usually stabilizes over time after an acute exacerbation regardless of treatment. Given enough time, it is highly likely that the person would have gotten better or at least recovered to the same extent regardless of the treatment received (including no treatment). The fact that the person improved after surgery does not indicate that the surgery caused the improvement. Instead, the relation of surgery and improved low back pain is almost certainly coincidental. We regress to the mean. That the surgery occurred and improvement subsequently happened is not evidence that the surgery was effective or that the herniated disc was causing the low back pain.
How do we know this? The medical literature is replete with evidence to that end. Take for example the study, “Influence of Low Back Pain and Prognostic Value of MRI in Sciatica Patients in Relation to Back Pain.” The study was undertaken to evaluate the correlation between MRI findings and outcomes in patients with sciatica alone versus patients with sciatica and back pain. As the authors note, “it remains unclear to what extent morphological changes seen on MRI in sciatica patients are associated with back pain, rather than being a representation of irrelevant differences between individuals.” The study found “that herniated discs and nerve root compression on MRI were more prevalent among patients with predominantly sciatica compared to those who suffered from additional back pain.” Interestingly, patients with sciatica and low back pain but without a herniated disc or nerve root compression fared worse after one year than those patients with a herniated disc or nerve root compression. And “remarkably large disc herniations and extruded disc herniations were … equally distributed between the two groups,” causing the authors to conclude that “the worldwide accepted mechanical compression theory therefore seems not to offer a sufficient explanation for the cause of the disabling back and leg symptoms in sciatica.”
Other studies demonstrate similar findings that call into question our ability to assign causation of low back pain to herniated discs and nerve root compression. The well-known twin study demonstrates the difficulty in linking specific activities with low back pain. As the authors in that study report, “disc degeneration appears to be determined in great part by genetic influences. Although environmental factors also play a role, it is not primarily through routine physical loading exposures (eg, heavy vs. light physical demands) as once suspected.” As noted above, other studies have found that large portions of the general population have disc pathology on MRI, but no low back pain. Still other studies find low back pain in the absence of disc pathology on MRI. Despite this evidence, triers of fact routinely base liability decisions on medical opinions that conclude an injury or exposure caused a herniated disc based on a post-injury MRI (which is almost impossible to conclude from a rational, evidentiary perspective in the absence of a pre-injury or exposure MRI) and that the herniated disc is causing low back pain (which runs contrary to the received scientific evidence).
What does this mean for medicolegal claims? It suggests that every claim for injury- or exposure-related back pain based on post-injury MRI scans demonstrating a herniated disc should be carefully scrutinized. In addition, worker’s compensation and liability carriers should take every opportunity to educate triers of fact regarding the lack of a causal nexus between herniated discs and low back pain. Independent medical examiners should point to the relevant literature to begin convincing triers of fact that there is no evidentiary link between low back pain and herniated lumbar discs. In this regard, insurance carriers can look to how the relationship of carpal tunnel syndrome to repetitive keyboard use evolved over time. When these claims first started arising, triers of fact in worker’s compensation accepted the link based on treating physician opinions seemingly without question. This was based on the fact that claimants reported experiencing symptoms while using computer keyboards. The medical literature did not support this association. Independent medical examiners began citing to research finding the opposite: that repetitive keyboarding is not a risk factor for or a cause of carpal tunnel syndrome. In at least some jurisdictions, the triers of fact and treating physicians eventually listened and stopped finding a relationship between repetitive keyboarding and carpal tunnel syndrome.
A similar shift ought to occur in the context of herniated discs and low back pain. While this does not suggest that low back pain itself is unrelated to an injury or exposure, it would radically reduce costs because it would limit surgery for herniated discs to cases where there is discernible nerve impingement causing motor and sensory deficits rather than in cases of low back pain alone. Although human beings are not very good at accurately assessing causation, we can learn to go against our instincts if there is high quality evidence denying causation and experts willing to hammer that point home. It is time to hammer home the point that disc pathology on MRI is poorly correlated to low back pain and limit expensive surgical procedures the efficacy of which is not supported by the medical literature. The simple fact of the matter is that costs for treating a condition that cannot be reliably related to an accident or repetitive stress exposure should not be borne by a liability or worker’s compensation carrier (especially when the condition is poorly correlated with the alleged health effects).
We have written about the potential to use stem cells to regenerate articular cartilage in this space before. Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have grown articular cartilage using a person’s own stem cells in a moldable 3D synthetic scaffold. The development is exciting because the scaffold can be molded around the shape of an arthritic femoral head, thus potentially replacing a person’s damaged articular cartilage with healthy cartilage. If this potential treatment becomes a reality, it could offer an alternative to total hip replacement surgery. This would be particularly beneficial for patients under 50 years of age with advanced hip arthritis since most prostheses last less than 20 years and replacing a prosthetic hip carries with it greater complications than the original replacement. While the research is preliminary and has not yet been tested in animals (let alone humans), it is exciting and worth following, especially considering the fact that 322,000 hip replacements are performed annually in the United States alone.
Employment-related meniscus tears are among the more common worker’s compensation claims. The reasons are myriad but are influenced by the fact that most people develop degenerative meniscus tears as they age and the mechanism of injury for an acute tear merely involves twisting the knee, which can occur in even the lightest and most sedentary occupations because all workers who are not wheelchair-bound walk which means all workers are at risk of twisting their knee in a slip, trip, or fall at the workplace. Setting aside the possibility that such an event is idiopathic, if a worker seeks medical treatment for knee pain following an industrial event and a meniscus tear is discovered on an MRI the treating physician usually relates the tear to the event. Standard treatment in most such cases is usually surgical excision of the loose or torn meniscal tissue, more commonly known as a meniscectomy. The assumption driving the surgery is that the meniscus tear is causing the knee pain and resecting the tear will eliminate the pain. The problem with this scenario is that most meniscus tears are degenerative and there is no high quality research demonstrating that meniscectomy is an effective treatment for degenerative meniscus tears. In fact, when researchers recently studied the question they found that exercise was equally effective as meniscectomy to treat knee pain in the presence of a degenerative meniscus tear, according to results published in the British Medical Journal (“BMJ”).
In the worker’s compensation setting, the argument is often made that an industrial event extended a preexisting degenerative meniscus tear in order to justify the surgical intervention (and coverage of the procedure under a worker’s compensation insurance policy). The cost of meniscectomies to the worker’s compensation system is substantial. The medical expenses alone are significantly higher for surgery than for conservative care. In addition, meniscectomies often result in some permanent partial disability. For example, a meniscectomy in Wisconsin carries with it a 5% minimum PPD rating to the lower extremity at the level of the knee and under the AMA Guides a meniscectomy typically results in at least a 1% impairment rating. Surgery also typically necessitates a period of temporary total disability in non-sedentary workers. The findings of the BMJ study should give every employer and worker’s compensation insurer pause and an editorial advocating systemic prohibition of using arthroscopy to treat knee pain that appears in the same issue should spur change.
First, a few things about the study itself. The BMJ study is a level 1, properly designed randomized controlled trial. This is the highest category of medical studies and is considered to produce the best and most reliable evidence available. The BMJ study was conducted in Norway and was a randomized control trial with two parallel intervention groups of 70 patients per group. One group received exercise alone and the other group received partial meniscectomy alone. The participants were 35-60 year old persons of both sexes with a 2+ month history of unilateral knee pain without a major trauma but with a verified medial meniscus tear verified on MRI and no worse than grade 2 arthritic changes on x-ray. The study found that there was no difference in outcomes between the two groups at 3 months and 24 months post-intervention. The meniscectomy group reported better function and greater participation in sports and recreation at 12 months post-intervention, but the effect was gone by 24 months. The authors could “not exclude the possibility that the greater placebo effect from surgery on patient outcomes” may have “mask[ed] the ‘real’ difference in treatment between the groups,” which they postulated could explain the temporary effects observed in the meniscectomy group.
More striking even than the study findings is the accompanying editorial. The authors of the editorial call for a systemic level rule to prevent unnecessary knee arthroscopies from being performed to treat knee pain. As they note, in the last decade:
A series of rigorous trials, summarized in two recent reviews and meta-analyses, provide compelling evidence that arthroscopic knee surgery offers little benefit for most patients with knee pain. The latest nail into what should be a sealing coffin appears in a linked paper by Kise and colleagues (doi:10.1136/bmj.i3740): a rigorous comparison between exercise alone and arthroscopic partial meniscectomy alone (without any postoperative rehabilitation) in adults with degenerative meniscus tear. The authors found no between group difference in patient reported function at the two year follow-up…
The editorial authors note there has never been high quality research supporting meniscectomy in an older population with degenerative meniscus tears, but that the procedure was extended to this population based on unverified assumptions:
With no support aside from biological rationale, the indication crept from locked knees in young patients to all patients of all ages with knee pain and meniscus tears of any sort; tears which, on magnetic resonance imaging, have proved poorly associated with symptoms.
The conclusion they reach is both astonishing and harsh:
We are at the point where any careful scrutiny, by, for instance, public health administrators or officials of an insurance company, would conclude that the estimated two million arthroscopic partial meniscectomies undertaken globally each year at a cost of several billion US dollars is potentially nothing but medical waste. Because frontline practitioners and local commissioners have not responded appropriately to the evidence, it follows that system level measures that result in more appropriate use of scarce medical resources are necessary—and perhaps urgently required.
In short, the authors believe the evidence against arthroscopy to treat knee pain is so strong and the evidence for it is so weak that health systems as a whole should stop paying for these procedures. Such a rule would have a significant impact on worker’s compensation claims where meniscectomies are routinely performed to treat degenerative meniscus tears.
Choosing the right IME doctor can be challenging, especially in complex claims or those with unusual injuries. Numerous factors influence the decision-making process. However, two of the most important factors include familiarity with the injury or condition at issue and knowing the precise claims at issue. These factors are particularly important because many injuries or conditions can be treated by different specialists and it can be difficult in these cases to figure out which specialist is truly the most qualified and credible for the claim at hand. In simple terms, merely knowing the diagnosis is not enough.
For example, an orthopedic surgeon may amputate toes in a diabetic foot infection claim, but if the cause of the infection is themain issue an endocrinologist, infectious disease specialist, or podiatrist may be better able to write a detailed, credible report as to what caused the infection. The reason is simple: orthopedic surgeons do not treat diabetic foot problems unless amputation is required. The treatment of diabetes, infection risk, and diabetic foot infection management are handled by other specialists. On the other hand, if permanent impairment is the main issue then an orthopedic surgeon may well be the best expert to use because they are uniquely qualified to evaluate the effects of surgeries they perform.
A similar situation arises in the context of moderate to severe traumatic brain injury. A neurosurgeon will typically treat the initial injury, but once the condition has stabilized and requires no further surgical management care is usually transferred to a rehabilitation specialist (or more than one). Once rehabilitation and recovery are complete, care is transferred again, often to a neurologist and a psychiatrist. In addition, neuropsychologists are often involved in the rehabilitation and recovery process to assess mental functioning. If the main issue in the claim is the extent of permanency and the type and nature of future care, a neurosurgeon would be of limited value. However, if the issue is the appropriateness of care in the critical post-traumatic period, a neurosurgeon would obviously be the most qualified expert. Yet another iteration may involve questions over the extent of mental impairment, in which case a neuropsychologist would be the most qualified expert.
Facial injuries involving the eye can be difficult also. The initial treatment may involve an ophthalmologist and a plastic surgeon. Once the emergency treatment is completed, care may be transferred to a different ophthalmologist for treatment and management of long term vision issues. Severe ocular injuries can precipitate neurological issues as well, especially headaches. Sinus and nasal problems can also be present. In such complicated cases, the actual issues must be examined to assess which experts to use. For example, in a penetrating eye injury where the patient claims he cannot return to work an ophthalmologist may not be the best choice where the failure to return to work is unrelated to vision loss. In penetrating eye injuries, the loss of intraocular pressure can precipitate headaches with position changes. If the claimant was a laborer who routinely has to bend over or look up, a neurologist may very well be the best expert to assess whether the work conditions would in fact precipitate headaches that would prevent the claimant from returning to his employment. Again, knowledge of both the injury and the actual claim being made are necessary to make the best doctor choice.
Choosing the right doctor is often vexing. Making the most informed doctor choice not only requires knowledge of the type of injury or condition, but also the precise issues or claims being made in relation to the injury or condition. To make an informed doctor choice, it is important to recognize that the seemingly obvious specialist might not actually be the best choice depending on what exactly is at issue. Hence, being familiar with both the injury or condition and the precise issues involved in the claim are necessary to make the best doctor choice.
In many claims, the recorded statement is the first and only time a claims professional has to hear what the claimant has to say about the incident precipitating the claim without the presence of counsel. As such, it provides a unique opportunity to gather information and develop a record of sorts against which the facts of the claim can be judged. Unfortunately, recorded statements are often cursory, covering a checklist of questions without securing much in the way of detail about the incident and the claimant’s level of functioning pre- and post-incident. Part of the reason is the checklist of questions. They are often slavishly adhered to rather than used as a guide for areas that the claims professional wants the claimant to discuss. In addition, the checklist often becomes an unnecessary attentional anchor for the interviewer, causing him to interrupt the claimant and direct her answers toward staying on script. This is problematic because most of the academic literature and the most cutting edge law enforcement practices find that the best form of questioning is open-ended, allowing the person being interviewed to describe things in at most a lightly interrupted narrative form.
Wired Magazine recently published an article on the changes being implemented at the federal level and in some local police departments to the traditional mode of interrogation. The article holds insights for conducting recorded statements. Obviously the stakes are higher in capital criminal cases such as the one profiled in the article, but the lessons apply to all forms of interviewing witnesses. The author reports that a huge problem with modern interviewing is that “standard interrogation technique can be an ineffective tool for gathering lots of useful and accurate information” because many witnesses “clam up.” If the person being interviewed feels like they are being interrogated, they will offer as little information as possible. This is problematic because the purpose of a witness interview, whether of a claimant in a civil case, a suspect in a criminal case, or a third party witness in either case, is to gather as much information as possible. As the article puts it, the more a witness says, “the more that can be checked against the record.”
So how would you go about doing this? It is really quite simple. The gist “is this: If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible.” In other words, build rapport with the witness and remember that the purpose of the interview should be “ geared … toward the pursuit of information.” Other interesting findings from current research is that asking witnesses to describe events in reverse chronological order is harder to do when they are lying. It is believed that the increased cognitive load of fabricating a story or facts makes descriptions in reverse chronological order particularly difficult. In addition, when witnesses lie or fabricate they are not able to provide the same level of detail as truth tellers. According to Steven Kleinman, who works with the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a joint effort between the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon, “No matter how good the cover story is, it’s not going to be as rich as a real-life story.”
The article explains how the new interrogation techniques were put to use to solve a crime in Los Angeles. In that case, a man, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, was suspected of killing his partner, but the evidence was too circumstantial to allow for charges to be brought against him. Just over two years after the crime was committed, two LA detectives again interviewed Campos-Martinez, this time using non-accusatory, rapport-building interview techniques. As a result, the suspect spent 5 hours with the detectives after telling them he only had a short time to speak with them. It seemed “almost like [the suspect] appreciated the chance to talk. As the hours went on, the conversation started to go in unpredictable directions.” He eventually revealed critical details that ultimately led to charges and his conviction for the murder. During the course of the interrogation, the suspect “started to reminisce” about walks he and his partner used to take in the area where the body was discovered, which was new information. In addition, the suspect described a plant that is used to make herbal tea but in greater quantities can be used to incapacitate, which proved crucial to his conviction.
It is possible for claims professionals to accomplish the same thing when taking recorded statements. Build rapport and let the witness talk. There will always be time for wrap-up questions to ensure that the basic identifying information makes it onto the statement. But instead of going through a checklist from the start, it might be better to ask open-ended questions that let the witness open up. Instead of asking a witness if they have hobbies, which is sort of an antiquated term anyway, ask her what does she like to do? Try having the witness start from a point away from the incident and ask them to describe what happened working backwards. Pay attention to the detail provided. The point is that people like to talk when they don’t feel like they are being interrogated. Build rapport. Don’t accuse. Get to the truth (or ferret out the lie).
We are inundated with messages about the opioid crisis in America. According to the CDC 28,000 people died due to opioid overdose in 2014, at least half of which occurred while using prescription painkillers. There is also evidence that heroin use is increasing as prescription opioids become harder to obtain. In fact, the CDC reports that prescription opioid painkiller use is strongest risk factor for heroin addiction. Those in the worker’s compensation field have seen firsthand the devastation addiction to prescription opioids can cause. In addition to the tragic human costs, cases involving long term prescription opioid painkiller use often have high economic costs that include significant lost time and failure to return to work in addition to the cost of the prescriptions themselves. And this doesn’t begin to touch on the cost that are imposed on the social safety net when long term opioid painkiller use turns into permanent disability. The bottom line is that an effective alternative to prescription opioid painkiller use in chronic pain cases would improve lives, improve society, and most importantly save lives.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) recently published a report addressing whether mindfulness-based stress reduction might be that effective alternative. The report notes that the CDC recommends physicians “try nonpharmacologic and nonopioid therapies first,” before using opioid painkillers. Hence, it is becoming imperative for physicians to explore alternatives to simply prescribing painkillers. According to the report, “limited research indicates that mindfulness meditation for pain management therapy has promise.” For example, a recent study found that adding mindfulness meditation to a standard pain treatment program increased the percentage of patients who reported meaningful pain reduction from 26.6% to 44.9%. Obviously this is a significant finding. Unfortunately, there are no studies that compare mindfulness-based stress reduction directly with opioid use. The report stresses the importance of performing direct comparison, double-blinded, randomized studies to measure the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction compared to prescription opioid painkillers.
So why does mindfulness-based stress reduction appear to help at all? There are a number of reasons, but chief among them is the understanding that “pain is a complex phenomenon involving more than a direct nerve impulse from the affected tissue or limb to the somatic sensory cortex” and that “a person’s thoughts and emotions also play a role in pain perception.” This has helped physicians to focus on treatment modalities that “shift chronic pain treatment from a ‘biomedical disease model’ to a ‘patient-centered’ model focused on ‘patient engagement in daily self-management.’” The key is shift between improved quality of life versus elimination of pain, which is often impossible. This turns the patient’s attention away from pain and disability and toward behavioral and psychological interventions and techniques to improve her quality of life. In the words of a mindfulness meditation study participant, “I felt the pain was there, but I was able to let it go. I didn’t dwell on it so much.”
Whether mindfulness-based stress reduction will prove to be a substitute or an effective alternative to prescription opioid painkillers remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the growing awareness that chronic pain is different from and needs to be treated differently than acute pain is positive. The trend is moving toward interventions in chronic pain patients that focus on learning strategies to cope with their pain which in turn increases their ability to function at higher levels. And higher levels of functioning mean less catastrophizing, less disability, and ultimately, less death. A happy coincidence is that it also means a reduction in worker’s compensation costs.
Any person who spends time in claims has run into files in which a patient with back pain has undergone “provocative discography.” The procedure involves injecting intervertebral discs suspected of causing the claimant’s pain with fluid along with “healthy control” discs. Purportedly, if the claimant feels an increase of pain in the suspected disc compared to the “control” discs, then the suspected disc is confirmed as being the cause of the claimant’s back pain. The problem is threefold. First, studies have determined that provocative discography cannot do what it is supposed to do. It cannot identify “discogenic pain.” Second, studies have definitively concluded that not only is provocative discography an ineffective diagnostic tool but also that it causes the degeneration of injected intervertebral discs to accelerate. Third, a recent study published in The Spine Journal (subscription required) found in a 10 year study that provocative discography performed on persons without back complaints actually led to back pain and surgical intervention. Healthnewsreviews.org has an outstanding piece about the study and the lack of coverage in the health news media. This is important because even today, with knowledge that provocative discography is an ineffective diagnostic tool, 70,000 procedures are performed annually in the United States. Anyone involved in medico-legal claims should read the Healthnewsreviews.org piece. Here are some of the highlights:
Experts say that provocative discography has no proven benefit for identifying symptomatic discs and has previously been shown on magnetic resonance imaging to be associated with faster degeneration of injected discs. The new study followed 75 patients who received the injections and compared them to 75 matched controls. The point of the new study was to see whether the disc degeneration seen on MRI would translate into clinically important back pain symptoms.
There was no significant history of back pain in either group when the study began. But the new 10-year data showed that there were more back pain surgeries (16 vs. 4); more frequent sciatica and back pain syndromes, and greater work loss and doctor visits for low back pain in the punctured discs compared to controls.
Such is the import of this study that an orthopedic surgeon interviewed as part of the article flat out stated:
“But readers should be aware that a trial of this sort with 10 years of follow up is very compelling evidence of discography’s potential problems,” Rickert says. “Such long term studies are rare,” he adds, and this one should tell readers: “Do not go undergo provocative discography.”
Perhaps the best summary was provided by another doctor consulted for the article. Steven Atlas, MD, MPH, told Healthnewsreviews.org:
So, not surprisingly, results are not very reliable. We also know that patients who have fusion based upon findings of provocative discography don’t do any better than individuals who have surgery but don’t undergo this test. We also know that patients can report more pain after the procedure, including pain they didn’t have before the procedure. And now we know that there are long-term risks associated with discography.
The article is worth reading in its entirety. One hopes that discography and its costs, both direct and indirect, will soon disappear from the health care landscape. In the meantime, claims professionals should expect their IME doctors on back pain cases to be familiar with the study and use it in their reports when treating physicians recommend or actually perform provocative discography and use it to diagnose the cause of back pain and the need for surgery.
Medical Systems recently held a lunch and learn at Lombardi’s Steakhouse in Appleton, Wisconsin at which hand surgery expert Jan Bax, M.D. discussed common hand injuries. During his presentation, Dr. Bax alerted attendees to a recent white paper from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (“AAOS”) that reports a moderate level of medical evidence links computer use to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome (see p. 222). As Dr. Bax pointed out, the paper was published in the last couple of months so its ultimate effect in the worker’s compensation arena is undetermined. Nevertheless, Dr. Bax expressed concern that the paper will lead to renewed carpal tunnel syndrome claims based on repetitive computer use (keyboarding and mouse use). He noted this is especially troublesome because the hand surgery section of the AAOS considers it a settled issue that computer use does not cause carpal tunnel syndrome.
The white paper assigns levels of evidence supporting the various factors that are sometimes alleged to cause carpal tunnel syndrome. The highest level of evidence is “strong,” which requires consistent evidence from two or more high quality studies. The second highest level of evidence is “moderate,” which requires consistent evidence from two or more moderate quality studies or evidence from a single high quality study. This is the level of evidence the AAOS finds for the position that computer use causes carpal tunnel syndrome. The second lowest level of evidence is “limited,” which requires consistent evidence from two or more low quality studies, one moderate study, or insufficient/inconsistent evidence recommending for or against the diagnosis. The lowest level of evidence is “consensus,” which requires that there is no reliable evidence but rather is based on unsupported clinical opinion.
As Dr. Bax noted, finding that moderate evidence supports the link between computer use and carpal tunnel syndrome is troubling because it is actually is a high level of evidence and may sway triers of fact despite the nearly uniform position of actual hand surgery specialists that there is no such causal link. This is especially true given the findings in some of the research cited. Coggon, et al., specifically stated that there was an “absence of association with the use of computer keyboards” and noted this “is also consistent with the findings overally from other research.” The researchers concluded that “obesity and diabetes, and the physical stresses to tissues from the use of hand-held vibratory tools and repeated forceful movements of the wrist and hand, all cause impaired function of the median nerve” but that computer keyboard probably only focuses attention on symptoms without being injurious to the tissues of the wrist. Coggon, et al. seem to support a more nuanced relationship between computer keyboard use and carpal tunnel syndrome than is portrayed in the AAOS white paper. Likewise, Eleftheriou, et al. studied the link between computer keyboard use and carpal tunnel syndrome but related the following disclaimer:
One limitation is related to [the study’s] cross-sectional design which does not allow us to conclude if the association between cumulative exposure to key-board use is of causative nature. The study included workers present when the study was formed, which implies a possible selection bias as is the case in all cross-sectional studies, especially if the study population was affected by high turn-over. It’s a limitation of our study that we don’t have data on actual turn-over of the staff…Further, we didn’t control for possible confounding factors like anthropometric characteristics of the wrist…
Eleftheriou, et al. reported only “a possible association between cumulative exposure to keyboard strokes and the development of [carpal tunnel syndrome]…” They specifically noted that additional studies need to be done to verify their results and to address causality.
The AAOS white paper is a troubling development in carpal tunnel syndrome worker’s compensation cases since it potentially throws into question the settled opinion among hand surgery specialists that keyboard use does not cause carpal tunnel syndrome. As Dr. Bax noted at the recent Medical Systems lunch and learn, it is too early to tell exactly what the effects of the paper will be, though they are not likely to be positive. In the event that the AAOS white paper is cited to support work-related carpal tunnel syndrome cases among keyboard users, it will be critical to choose experts who understand and can explain the limitations of the evidence on which the paper relies. Without an expert who will vigorously question and thoroughly refute the evidence, the AAOS white paper is likely to carry more weight in keyboard-related carpal tunnel syndrome claims than it otherwise should.
Last week psychiatrist Jeffrey Zigun, M.D. and psychologist Brad Grunert, Ph.D. spoke at Medical Systems’ 2016 Advanced Medical Topics in Civil Litigation Symposium on mild traumatic brain injury. Three topics came up repeatedly during the individual experts’ presentations and in the follow-up panel discussion:
The answers to the first two of the three issues are surprisingly simple, while the answer to the third is, or at least can be, much more complicated.
With respect to the question of whether mild traumatic brain injuries can get worse over time, the simple answer according to the experts is “no.” Both Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert were clear in their statement that recovery from mild traumatic brain injury follows a predictable recovery. The physical injury to the brain itself reaches maximum medical improvement within a year and all expected improvements in functioning occur within two years of the injury. This is significant because a number of participants in the seminar reported scenarios in which a claimant/plaintiff experienced a precipitous decrease in functioning 12, 18, or even 24+ months after the initial injury. In at least some cases, the decrease in functioning was measured on neuropsychiatric testing and was deemed not to be malingering. Both Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert were clear in their presentations and in the panel discussions that such a decrease in functioning would not be due to an underlying mild traumatic brain injury, even if the injury were permanent. Brain injuries get better over time; they don’t yo-yo up and down or suddenly get worse after a period of improvement. Unfortunately, a decrease in functioning after a period of improvement can still be related to the accident. More on this later.
One of the more interesting aspects of the symposium was the discussions about the role of intelligence in recovery from a mild traumatic brain injury. The experts both stressed that intelligence is enormously important in assessing how individuals will recover from permanent mild traumatic brain injury. The reason is that those with more intelligence have more to lose before the loss of function becomes a significant impairment. The example Dr. Grunert used was an academic researcher: she may have some memory impairment following a mild traumatic brain injury, but it may only mean that she has to look up citations she previously had memorized. This will obviously add some time to her research, but it will not impair the quality of the research itself or her ability to write. On the other hand, a factory worker who has to follow a specific procedure when operating a dangerous machine will have no margin for error. If her memory was on the lower end of average to begin with, losing any amount of memory function could cause her to be unable to follow the specific procedure when operating machinery. Since there is no margin of error, the factory worker’s memory impairment would cost her the ability to do her job. Hence, one point both Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert made was that impairment following mild traumatic brain injury is often different for persons of high intelligence than it is for persons of lower intelligence.
The trickiest question the experts dealt with is how to determine the fact of a traumatic brain injury. In many cases a person hits their head and the symptoms of concussion are obvious. These might include brief loss of consciousness, dizziness, retrograde and/or anterograde amnesia, headache, wooziness, etc. In other cases the fact of injury might be less obvious. Perhaps the person did not strike their head in a motor vehicle crash, but reported some symptoms consistent with mild traumatic brain injury. Further complicating matters are cases where there is a preexisting history of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, or other psychological diagnoses. In all cases, Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert stressed the importance of early neuropsychological testing. Dr. Grunert noted that neuropsychological testing has a high degree of reliability and specificity. In addition, neuropsychological testing is good at ferreting out malingering from legitimate claims. Early testing also establishes a baseline from which test results should not decline in mild traumatic brain injury.
As the experts and the audience discussed, often the fact of injury is not an issue at the beginning of a claim, though. Instead, the fact of injury becomes an issue after a year or more. Usually, this seems to occur as a result of a decline in functioning, whether supported through neuropsychiatric testing or not. As the experts agreed, simply because a person declines in functioning after a mild traumatic brain injury should have stabilized does not mean that they are not continuing to suffer from a permanent brain injury or that the decline in function is not legitimate or related to the accident. Both Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert agreed that a decline in functioning a year or more after a mild traumatic brain injury only means that the brain injury itself is probably not responsible for the decline in functioning. Instead, they pointed to psychological conditions as often being the culprit.
When the audience heard this, many persons wanted to know if the psychological conditions would be related to the accident, especially if there was a preexisting history. As Dr. Zigun noted numerous times, it depends. For example, Dr. Zigun addressed the simple fact that many of the drugs used to treat psychological conditions also have positive effects on the sequelae from traumatic brain injury. Take SSRIs, commonly used to treat depression. Dr. Zigun pointed out that one symptom of depression is memory impairment, which is also a symptom of mild traumatic brain injury. SSRIs help alleviate memory impairment in both depression and mild traumatic brain injury. Dr. Zigun noted that if a person is diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, they may very well end up on an SSRI. Once the brain injury stabilizes, the person may be weaned off the SSRI. However, if the person has simultaneously developed depression, weaning her from the SSRI may cause a decrease in functioning related to the depression, including worsening memory impairment. Both experts agreed that the decrease in functioning in such a case could be legitimate but that it would not be related to the mild traumatic brain injury.
How, then, can we determine if a decline in functioning relates to the accident? The answer, unfortunately, is not clear cut. The experts stressed that to evaluate whether a decline in functioning, once determined to be legitimate and not malingering, relates to an accident, the analysis essentially looks to the totality of the circumstances to attempt to parse out the causal factors. The case a number of audience members brought up was the situation in which there is a preexisting history of a psychological condition such as depression which is determined to be the reason for the post-accident decline in functioning. Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert agreed that it is exceptionally difficult to determine whether the development of a psychological condition is accident-related. They noted that many factors could cause the onset of depression episode that would be related to the accident. For example, if the mild traumatic brain injury caused a memory impairment that prevents the injured person from returning to work, it would not be unusual for the person to develop depression. The depression would not be caused by the brain injury itself, but rather would be the result of the job loss, which resulted from the brain injury. On the other hand, if the injured person has recovered well and is coping with any residual impairments from the brain injury, the depression is likely to be independent of the brain injury. The bottom line is that declines in psychological functioning in the context of a permanent mild traumatic brain injuries present challenging cases for experts in which causation can only be determined by assessing the totality of the circumstances.
Mild traumatic brain injuries can present vexing cases for claims professionals. As Dr. Zigun and Dr. Grunert discussed, mild traumatic brain injuries can be diagnosed and treated effectively, even in the case of concomitant psychological conditions. We are grateful for their participation in Medical Systems’ 2016 Advanced Medical Topics in Civil Litigation Symposium and for the many insights they shared with our audience.
Osteoarthritis of the knee is the bane of many worker’s compensation claims. Frequently, an injured worker demonstrates evidence of arthritis but claims an acute event aggravated the condition to the point that it was symptomatic. What can be frustrating for the employer or insurance carrier is the fact that in most cases the arthritis itself was not caused by the employment. Thus, the employer or insurance carrier laments the fact that they are being held responsible for 100% of a condition that would have almost certainly become symptomatic regardless of the acute work-related event. Unfortunately, to date there has been no reliable method to measure whether this is accurate or, if so, when the arthritis would have become symptomatic. However, a recent study suggest we may have technology to do just that.
A group of Finnish and Swedish researchers released “A Novel Method to Simulate the Progression of Collagen Degeneration of Cartilage in the Knee” in which they developed a “degeneration algorithm … combined with computational modeling” that accurately predicted the rate at which knee cartilage would deteriorate based on the weight of patients. The study was conducted on 429 patients under 65 years of age who initially had no radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis (cartilage thinning) in their knees. The subjects were divided into a study group, consisting of patients with a BMI of 35 or higher, considered to be at high risk of developing weight-related osteoarthritis of the knee, and a control group, consisting of patients with a BMI lower than 25, considered to be of low risk for developing weight-related osteoarthritis of the knee. As noted, neither group demonstrated radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis at the beginning of the study nor had any member of either group sustained a knee injury that either prevented them from walking for more than 2 days or required surgical intervention. The 2 groups were then followed for 4 years.
The researchers developed an algorithm to predict the rate at which cartilage loss associated with osteoarthritis would occur based on BMI and other physiological characteristics. In their words, “[t]he algorithm was based on cartilage overloading so that cumulatively accumulated excessive stresses (above failure limit) caused alterations in tissue properties with time.” The researchers then developed a computational program to simulate the expected cartilage loss over four years based on the baseline status of knee cartilage from MRI readings. The accuracy of the algorithm and computational modeling was measured against x-rays taken at the beginning of the study and after 4 years. The results demonstrated the ability of the algorithm and modeling to accurately predict which subjects would experience loss of cartilage associate with osteoarthritis and how much loss each subject would experience. According the study, “[t]he simulated onset and development of osteoarthritis agreed with experimental baseline and 4-year follow-up data.” This lead researchers to conclude that, “[t]he present work provides…an important and groundbreaking step toward developing a rapid and subject-specific diagnostic tool for the simulations of the onset and development of knee osteoarthritis and cartilage degeneration related to excessive chronic overloading due to overweight [sic].”
The implications of this individualized ability to predict the onset of knee arthritis could be significant for worker’s compensation. If the method proves to be accurate and reliable in subsequent studies, it could be used in the same manner as occupational hearing tests to measure a baseline condition and determine if the subsequent condition is related to the normal progression of the disease versus an occupational aggravation. Likewise, the method would offer the potential to calculate, based on an employee’s physical condition on the date of injury, the likelihood that the alleged employment-related event aggravated the underlying arthritis and if so how much the employment-related event is responsible for. This would finally allow for an accurate accounting of what portion of a preexisting degenerative condition is related to an industrial event and what portion is due to the natural progression of the condition. While this would admittedly be at best a distant possibility, it is nevertheless a possibility. Hence, the study and its future applications are worth following.
Pain. We all experience it, but what is pain? Certainly pain has a nociceptive component, meaning when we experience injury our nerves send a message to our brain that results in the state of awareness that may be best characterized by the word “ouch.” This is the type of pain that seems best controlled with traditional analgesics such as prescription opioids. Pain may also be neuropathic, meaning it is not the resulted of an injured tissue sending a classic pain signal to the brain but rather is the result of a damaged nerve that is sending abnormal signals to the brain due to the injured state of the nerve itself. This is why persons with neuropathic pain experience paresthesia and hyperesthesia rather than the typical stabbing or aching pain that would associated with physical injury to a muscle, bone, or joint. Chronic pain also differs from neuropathic and nociceptive pain in that it appears to be a learned cognitive response to a patho-anatomic abnormality that may or may not be causing actual nociceptive pain. Further complicating the range of pain that we experience is psychological pain; that is the somatization of psychological distress.
A new Psychological Science study (subscription required) throws a new wrench into the pain picture: persons in financial distress who are also in pain feel higher levels of pain than those are not experiencing economic distress. According to the study,
The link between economic insecurity and physical pain emerged when people experienced the insecurity personally (unemployment), when they were in an insecure context (they were informed that their state had a relatively high level of unemployment), and when they contemplated past and future economic insecurity.
Interestingly, the authors concluded that “the psychological experience of lacking control helped generate the causal link from economic insecurity to physical pain.” This offers some hope that addressing the feeling of lacking control could help to lower the perceived experience of pain.
In the claims context, the experience of pain is a major cost-driver. Persons who experience pain will continue to seek treatment for injuries that have otherwise resolved or stabilized. In addition, persons who experience pain often miss time from work and have other disability-related costs. What complicates the apparent relationship of economic insecurity and pain in the claims context is that persons with claims often experience economic insecurity related to the claimed injuries. For example, an employee suffers a work-related knee injury and has to miss time from work. Even a conceded claim can cause financial distress as compensation benefits are paid out at 2/3 of average weekly wage and the injury may force the employee to miss overtime they expected to work. Matters get worse when a claimant is cut off from benefits but claims ongoing injury and an inability to return to work. In many such cases, claimants lack the savings or other sources of income replacement to weather the economic storm.
The problem from a claims perspective is that the economic situation of the claimant is outside the purview of the claim. For example, if a claimant alleges a work-related low back injury and the insurer questions whether the condition is in fact related to the employment, the insurer will have the claimant undergo an independent medical examination. If the independent medical expert concludes that the claimant’s condition is not related to her employment, the insurer will stop paying benefits to the claimant. At the same time, if the claimant is under work restrictions from her treating physician, she will not be able to return to work. As a result, she will lose her temporary total disability benefits while simultaneously having no recourse to income from her employment. If the Psychological Science study tells us anything, it is that losing temporary total disability benefits without other sources of income or income replacement will likely make the claimant’s physical condition worse. This can be a particularly fraught situation if the claimant is suffering from a degenerative condition that would wax and wane in severity even without economic distress. The study suggests that such a condition could be appreciated as being significantly worse in a claimant who is in economic distress. From a cost perspective, this is a problem because it will almost certainly lead the treating physician to conclude that conservative therapy failed to treat the condition. Concluding that conservative therapy failed often leads to a referral to a surgeon or the recommendation of surgery. All of a sudden, a condition that should be manageable with periodic noninvasive treatment and over-the-counter analgesics, becomes an intractable problem for which surgery is seen as the only option. And surgery is expensive.
If a claim reaches this point, it may be fairly stated that the reason conservative therapy failed and that surgery is being proposes is not due to the condition itself, but rather to the claimant’s financial distress which renders a normally tolerable condition into an intolerable one. The claimant’s financial distress is obviously related to the claim, but is not something over which the claims professional has control. The claims professional is not obliged to follow the recommendations of the IME doctor, but it would be highly unusual for a claims professional to continue to award benefits when she does not have to. The claims professional is not responsible for the claimant beyond the four corners of the claim. Except the decisions of the claims professional within the claim can have, as the study shows, consequences outside the four corners of the claim that can seep back into the claim. As such, it seems prudent for claims handlers to be aware, even if they have little control or choice, that the decision to deny benefits to a claimant can have the perverse effect of making the claim worse (from a cost perspective) than it would otherwise have been. At least then it will not be a surprise when the person with ordinary degenerative disc disease ends up with a fusion, failed back syndrome, and a claim for permanent total disability benefits.
When we think of traumatic brain injury, we typically think of symptoms primarily related to cognition and executive function. Hence, we expect to see memory deficits, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty regulating emotions. We associate the brain with thinking so we often focus on the symptoms related to thinking despite the fact that traumatic brain injury can cause a host of physical symptoms as well.
One of the most troubling physical symptoms is the potential for traumatic brain injury to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, or its normal sleeping/waking cycle. According to a 2012 Public Library of Science study, traumatic brain injury, “disrupts the oscillatory expression pattern of several circadian clock and clock-associated genes” in the areas of the brain primarily responsible for regulating the sleep/wake cycle (the suprachiasmic nuclie, or SCN, and hippocampus). In short, traumatic brain injury interferes with our ability to sleep normally. Interestingly, this sleep-impairing aspect of traumatic brain injury has effects on our cognition:
Since the hippocampus mediates learning, memory and cognition, and diurnal regulation by the SCN is essential for proper hippocampal function, disruption of the oscillatory gene expression patterns in these two brain areas seems likely to play a role in the long-term cognitive effects of TBI.
In short, if you don’t sleep normally you don’t think normally. This is problematic for other reasons also since sleep disruption is known to increase the likelihood of developing depression, bipolar disorder, diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic disorders.
The wide-ranging and myriad effects of traumatic brain injury make it essential to obtain an accurate diagnosis early in the process to ensure that the best available treatment is offered. While at least 80% of persons with mild traumatic brain injury will experience a complete recovery, there is small but nontrivial subset of patients whose symptoms will persist as chronic problems. If we are going to administer traumatic brain injury claims effectively, it is imperative that we understand many of the effects from traumatic brain injury are not primarily cognitive in nature but rather are physical.
To learn more about how the physical, cognitive, and psychological aspects of traumatic brain injury relate, check out Medical Systems’ 2016 Advanced Medical Topics in Civil Litigation Symposium on April 7, 2016.
There are certain medical procedures that are so common in worker’s compensation that we don’t give them a second thought. Partial meniscectomy is among them. Most people assume that an employee with a torn meniscus who is experiencing catching and locking in their knee should have a partial meniscectomy to treat the symptoms, regardless of whether we think the meniscus tear is work-related. Turns out that our assumption might be wrong.
The Annals of Internal Medicine published results from a study (subscription required) which found that arthroscopic partial meniscectomy is ineffective for relieving catching and locking symptoms in the knee. The study was conducted on a group of patients with medial knee pain who had confirmed meniscus tears without evidence of arthritis. The participants in the study were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which received the partial meniscectomy, or a control group, who received a sham arthroscopy. Participants were not aware of which group they were in to control possible bias.
The results of the study were surprising because in every reported measure, the patients undergoing the sham procedure reported fewer mechanical symptoms post-surgery. The most impressive results were among those patients reporting that they were symptom free following the procedure. Among this group, only 28% of the participants undergoing the actual partial meniscectomy reported being symptom-free while 41% of the participants who underwent the sham procedure reported being symptom-free. The study’s authors were quick to note, however, that trauma-related meniscus tears causing mechanical symptoms in persons under 35 do respond well to partial meniscectomy. On the other hand, they pointed out that “in a degenerative knee, seemingly similar symptoms may not even be caused by the meniscal tear - more likely they are a reflection of the overall deterioration of the knee and prone to increase as arthritis develops further.”
In the worker’s compensation context, the dispute is typically whether a meniscus tear is traumatic or degenerative. Regardless, the ineffectiveness and the possibility that the symptoms might be “a reflection of the overall deterioration of the knee and prone to increase as arthritis develops further” is a good reason to tread cautiously when an employee is diagnosed with a meniscus tear. If the employee’s meniscus tear is degenerative in nature, there is a strong likelihood that a partial meniscectomy will have a temporary benefit at best and in the long run will not ameliorate or slow the progression of degenerative arthritis. Hence, a meniscus tear in an older worker that is deemed to be work-related is highly likely to become an arthritic knee that will need to be replaced. And despite the fact that it is bad medicine and bad science, the arthritis is likely to be blamed on the meniscus tear even though the arthritis was probably the problem in the first place. Hence, it behooves every claims professional to take a serious look at meniscus claims and to defend them vigorously now that we know the proposed surgery may very well not work and may very well lead to additional (more costly) claims.
Pain is a problem that is frequently treated with painkillers. As we are all aware, this has led to a significant problem with addiction to and overdose from opioid painkillers in this country. The reasons for the crisis in prescription opioid addiction and overdose are myriad and have been discussed extensively here and elsewhere. This post is not about the problem, but instead about an opportunity to address it.
The NY Times recently posted an article about the potential to harness the placebo effect to help treat pain which offers an intriguing possibility in the struggle to treat pain without causing addiction and overdose. As Jo Marchant reports, “even when we take a real painkiller, a big chunk of the effect is delivered not by any direct chemical action, but by our expectation that that drug will work. Studies show that widely used painkillers like morphine, buprenorphine and tramadol are markedly less effective if we don’t know we’re taking them.” In fact, placebo effects are so powerful “that drug manufacturers are finding it hard to beat them.” Hence, Marchant suggests that more research should be done to figure out if “prescription” placebos could be used to treat pain.
Marchant recognizes the difficulty with placebos: namely that the effect is generally observed in clinical trials where individuals don’t know if they are getting the active drug or a placebo. In controlled studies, patients expect they will receive a drug that will improve their condition even though they know they might in fact get a placebo. This, as Marchant notes, appears to be a key component of the placebo effect: “[t]he greater our belief that a treatment will work, the better we’ll respond.” There have, however, been studies in which patients knowingly taking placebos still reported statistically significant improvement in their reported level of pain. This leads Marchant to ask the eminently reasonable question, “[w]ith placebo responses in pain so high – and the risks of drugs so severe – why not prescribe a course of ‘honest’ placebos for those who wish to try it, before proceeding, if necessary, to an active drug?”
Pain is ubiquitous in our society and, when chronic, often proves disabling. We know from experience that prescribing opioid painkillers is not the answer to the problem of pain. Perhaps it is time for those of us in the medico-legal world to use whatever muscle we have and advocate for change. A good place to start would be the use of “honest” placebos to treat pain.
Mild traumatic brain injury claims may well be the most vexing for claims professionals. They usually involve comparatively minor incidents for which little objective testing exists and they are frequently entangled with psychological co-morbidities which further complicate matters. In addition, the chief method to diagnose and assess mild traumatic brain injury involves subjective reports and evaluations of cognitive symptoms and functioning, making these claims particularly susceptible to exaggeration, malingering, and fraud.
The mild traumatic brain injury paradox is that those who are often at greatest risk of reinjury are often the most eager to return to the risky activity while those with the lowest risk of reinjury are most concerned about returning even to the activities of everyday life. Hence, the competitive athlete will mask symptoms in an effort to return to the playing field as quickly as possible while the truck driver who pulled an overhead trailer door onto his head may complain of cognitive symptoms for weeks or even months to avoid returning to work. The subjective nature of diagnosis and assessment makes it difficult for medical professionals to know when the athlete is not ready to return to competitive play and simultaneously when the truck driver is ready to return to work.
Unfortunately, recent research muddies the water and makes the development of an objective test for traumatic brain injury all the more important. In a study presented to the American Radiological Society, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that persons suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries demonstrated neuropathology on MRI scans days after their cognitive functioning returned to baseline. This is a potential problem because it is generally accepted that injured neurons subjected to a second trauma before they are healed are at risk of significant and permanent injury; further, the traditional mechanism for assessing when a mild traumatic brain injury has resolved is a subjective assessment that the injured person’s cognitive functioning has returned to baseline.
And as noted above, those who are most eager to return to the activity that caused the mild traumatic brain injury are often the most susceptible to suffering another head injury. If they return before they are fully healed from the first injury, the second injury could have devastating effects. This further exemplifies why it is so critical to develop a reliable and rapid objective test to assess the presence of mild traumatic brain injury. As an added bonus, a reliable and rapid objective test would have the felicitous effect of being able to catch those trying to use a mild traumatic brain injury to stay out of work or to collect a financial windfall in a personal injury action.