News August 2006 Issue

In the News: 08/06

More Studies Needed On Neck Pain Remedies

Despite the sizable amount of clinical-trial data that exists on the effectiveness of drugs for lower-back pain, many medications currently used for the relief of neck pain have yet to build a convincing track record.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, recently examined 32 trials and found no evidence of acetaminophen’s effectiveness and mostly negative data for anti-inflammatory drugs in either acute or chronic neck pain. One intervention, however, showed “moderate evidence of benefit” for chronic neck pain—intramuscular lidocaine. In one of the two studies showing this benefit, lidocaine used with neck stretches was more effective than intramuscular injections of saline combined with neck stretches. Investigators claim that many drugs being used for neck pain have little data to support their effectiveness, and yet all have side effects. Better studies are needed, they conclude, to ensure patients are being done more good than harm.

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Bear Hormone Offers Osteoporosis Hope

A hormone that protects hibernating bears from osteoporosis may someday protect humans from the bone-thinning disease as well.

Seth Donahue, a researcher at Michigan Technological University, has synthesized a hormone—parathyroid—that apparently gives bears immunity from osteoporosis. Surveying a group of black bears over a seven-month period, Donahue found that they emerged from their winter nap with bones as strong as they were before they went into hibernation.

Staying active promotes strong bones—in humans and bears—but in humans, lack of use causes an imbalance in bone formation and resorption, which leads to bone loss. When people are sedentary, parathyroid production doesn’t increase. In hibernating bears, it does.

Donahue identified the bear gene responsible for making parathyroid hormone and has synthesized the hormone in the lab. The next step, he says, is to integrate it with human bone cells to see if new bone formation takes place.

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Corticosteroids Linked To Heart Disorder

High doses of corticosteroids, often prescribed for arthritis pain relief, may be associated with an increased risk of atrial fibrillation. A heart rhythm disorder that occurs when muscles of the heart’s upper chambers (atria) contract irregularly, atrial fibrillation affects approximately four percent of people over age 60. 

Researchers in the Netherlands evaluated 7,983 adults age 55 and older in 1990. After a 10-year period, 435 cases of atrial fibrillation were discovered. Among those who had received high-dose corticosteroids within one month of the beginning of the study, the risk of atrial fibrillation was six times higher than it was for those who had never taken the medication. Researchers believe corticosteroids affect the heart by either upsetting the balance of potassium, causing the heart to contract irregularly, or by causing retention of sodium and fluid, which can lead to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, or enlarged atria. The study’s authors recommend monitoring by clinical examination and performing an electrocardiogram before and after high-dose corticosteroid therapy to diagnose and treat the condition as early as possible.

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Low-Carb Diet Does Not Hasten Bone Loss

Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets have become popular as a weight-loss program. Critics, however, point to animal studies which show that such diets adversely affect bone quality by altering the body’s acid balance.

Not so, counters a group of researchers at the University of South Florida, who found “insignificant” bone turnover (more rapid bone depletion than formation) among 30 overweight patients. The patients—half followed a low-carbohydrate diet, half ate a normal diet with no restrictions—were studied for three months, then given a blood test to determine the breakdown and formation of bone. The difference in bone turnover between the low-carbohydrate dieters and the non-dieters, the study revealed, was insignificant. The dieters did, however, lose significantly more weight—an average of 14 pounds—than patients on the unrestricted diet.