Observations Medicine and the Media

Antibiotics for back pain: hope or hype?

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f3122 (Published 14 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3122
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

The media went crazy for a recent research paper that showed some benefit in long term antibiotic use for some patients with back pain. But was this science or sensationalism, is talk of a Nobel prize premature, and what of the author’s potential conflicts of interest? Margaret McCartney investigates

“Up to 40% of patients with chronic back pain could be cured with a course of antibiotics rather than surgery, in a medical breakthrough,” began a story in the Guardian on 7 May. It continued, “One of the UK’s most eminent spinal surgeons said the discovery was the greatest he had witnessed in his professional life, and that its impact on medicine was worthy of a Nobel prize.”1

This surgeon, Peter Hamlyn, was also quoted in the Daily Mail as saying, “more work needs to be done but make no mistake, this is a turning point, a point where we will have to rewrite the textbooks.”2 The Guardian hosted a live webchat with Hanne Albert, the Danish researcher who made the discovery, and Hamlyn.3 The excitement was picked up by the global media.

Sky television featured a patient who said that antibiotics had cured her back pain. Albert was described by the presenter as “having to endure the ridicule of sceptical colleagues” before she described how, for a subgroup of people with back pain, antibiotics could “give them a happy life again.”4

A public relations company held a press conference to publicise the research on 7 May at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. The invitation said that the research paper …

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