The sexy scalpel: unnecessary shoulder surgery on the rise


By Jørgen Jevne @jevnehelse

jorgenWhile we are supposed to be living in the era of evidence-based medicine (EBM), researchers are making us increasingly aware of the long distance between academia and daily clinical practice. This is highlighted by recent writings on low back pain [1] and knee arthroscopy [2].

Clinicians love to cling on to their safe havens and we often cite experience as a reason to uphold the status quo.

However, clinical experience can be deceiving [3] and in the age of evidence it seems rather anachronistic to hold experience above science when our opinions are being questioned.

EBM is not just about clinical experience and scientific studies. Although patient-centred care is an indisputable hallmark of modern medicine, a recent publication in JAMA highlights patients´ tendency to overestimate treatment benefits and underestimate harms [4].

Clinicians need to educate patients sufficiently and inform them about benefits and harms based upon the best clinical evidence, to ensure that they make sound judgements regarding their own health.

Enter science.

The numbers

A number of studies have looked at the rising incidence of acromioplasty for the treatment of what is known as subacromial impingement syndrome [5,6] – now more correctly coined subacromial pain syndrome [7].

A Finish study actually reported declining incidence of surgery, however, this positive development was contrasted by an increase in the private sector [8]. A recent UK study reported a staggering 750% increase in the rate of these surgeries from 2000-2010 [9].

The numbers, albeit large, are not a problem in their own right.

Had clinical outcomes been shown to consistently improve with surgery compared to conservative therapy, the increase could easily have been justified.

Unfortunately, they do not.

Not even close.

The problem

The devious shoulder complex often renders clinicians with frustrating uncertainty [10]. Furthermore, in the spirit of holistic assessments and biopsychosocial models of care, we are gradually cognisant towards other factors that influence patient presentations and outcomes [11-13].

For over twenty years, surgery has failed to provide superior outcomes compared to conservative therapy for the treatment of SAPS. The results are consistent and with methodology more rigorous, the differences are even smaller, as illustrated by recent systematic reviews [14].

Shoulder pain remains somewhat of a medical mystery and the ambiguities are nicely illustrated by a 2009 study, which showed that a bursectomy alone had comparable effects to removing the acromion and bursa [15]. Additionally, as some of the structures being surgically removed for decreasing pain have a stabilizing role in the shoulder-complex [16], the following quote seems appropriate:

It would be hard to imagine that a surgeon would suggest, or a patient would agree to, having the anterior cruciate ligament removed to treat knee pain [17].

Then there is the concept of placebo. Surgeons have generally been reluctant to perform placebo surgery and the reasons are of course multifaceted.

When our long held fortress of beliefs is being attacked, strong reactions are inevitable. The few orthopaedic placebo surgeries that have been published have had discouraging results [18,19] and created fierce debate within the scientific community. However, a recent systematic review does indeed show that the concept of placebo surgery is both warranted and ethically justified [20].

In the words of Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. And while the claims might not be extraordinary, orthopaedic surgery has enjoyed amnesty from scientific inquiry for far too long [21].

While studies investigating placebo surgery for subacromial pain syndrome remain absent, 2015 seems to be the year we will have our first answers to this riddle [22].

The cure

History is filled with examples of long delays in the dissemination, acceptance, and implementation of high-level clinical evidence into clinical practice.

Make no mistake. There are many unanswered questions within conservative care of shoulder pain. This is not a speech of defense.

We definitely need more research. More honesty. More humility.

But in the light of the current evidence base, the benefits of surgical intervention for the treatment of SAPS seem glorified and overrated.

Conservative treatment appears underutilized and underestimated.

The solution should be obvious.

Providers of conservative care need to lift their game. We need to deliver patient-centered, evidence-informed, high-quality treatment based upon the very best of scientific rigor.

We need to make conservative care attractive. Accessible. Affordable.

We need to educate the public. We need to let patients know that exercise will have similar results as surgery.

That it will be cheaper and have more profound, long-lasting effects on patients’ health [23].

In other words:

We need to make exercise as sexy as the scalpel.


Jørgen Jevne is a dedicated musculoskeletal clinician and part-time researcher practicing in the small town of Hønefoss, Norway.


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