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Back Pain Study Questions Enbrel’s Effectiveness

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NEW YORK (CBS NEWS) - Millions of Americans suffer from back pain and are desperate for relief. While new genetically engineered drugs show great promise, a new study found the tried and true method of steroid injections was more effective to the newer, safer compounds at easing back pain.

For the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore tested back pain treatments on 84 adults with sciatica. Sciatica is back pain that’s typically caused by a herniated disk that radiates to the hip, outer side of the thigh and/or leg, due to pressure on a nerve.

The researchers randomized study participants to either receive either an epidural injection of 60 milligrams of an anti-inflammatory steroid, 4 milligrams of another type of anti-inflammatory drug named etanercept, or a placebo. Sold under the brand-name Enbrel, etanercept is a so-called “tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitor” that’s genetically engineered to target the inflammatory molecules that cause sciatica and other pain conditions (like arthritis), and keep the molecules from binding to receptors in the nervous system, thus preventing pain. Steroids work by combating inflammation generally.

One month after receiving the second of two injections, the researchers tested the patients and found those taking steroid reported less pain and disability compared to participants in the other two groups. Seventy-five percent of patients taking epidural steroids reported a 50 percent or greater reduction in pain after one month compared with 50 percent of saline patients and 42 percent of etanercept patients. Twenty-one percent of patients taking steroids reported low levels of disability, compared with 38 percent of patients taking etanercept.

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