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Pitt embarks on $14M chronic back pain study

| Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, 11:49 p.m.

University of Pittsburgh researchers will track hundreds of Western Pennsylvanians with aching backs, part of a $14 million effort to prevent those patients from developing an expensive chronic condition, the school announced Wednesday.

Pitt will lead a national clinical trial to explore the effectiveness of a specialized therapy for acute lower back pain, which accounts for an estimated $86 billion in health care bills each year, said lead investigator Anthony Delitto.

He said five health care systems across the country, including Downtown-based UPMC, expect to recruit about 2,600 people whose back pain appears at an elevated risk of becoming chronic. Researchers hope a planned behavioral therapy program will encourage patients to be more active, said Delitto, who chairs the physical therapy department in the Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“If inactivity persists, it almost plays into the back pain problem” and causes pain to worsen over a longer term, he said. “If they disengage from work, they don't go work, then all sorts of bad things begin to happen at the workplace.”

Delitto said past research in Europe and England suggests the method is helpful. The Washington-based Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute supplied a five-year award for the domestic study.

UPMC will be the first health care system to recruit patients with elevated chronic pain risks, a process that should start by June, Delitto said. He said researchers at Pitt, Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System in Baltimore, Boston Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston will divide up the patients equally.

Each patient will be tracked for a year.

Studies suggest fewer than 10 percent of back pain patients account for more than 90 percent of expenses in the field, and reducing that burden could free up money for work on other illnesses, Delitto said.

“When we think about the amount of money being spent on back pain, it's completely disproportionate to what it should be,” he said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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