Older Medicare recipients with new and persistent low back pain are often given opioids rather than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or physical therapy, Harvard researchers have found.

Among 162,000 patients studied between 2011 and 2014, one-third were prescribed opioids without first trying current guideline-recommended treatments, reported Dan Pham Ly, M.D. Physical therapy was prescribed to only 11% of patients.

Chronic opioid use developed in nearly 2% of those with two or more care visits. In addition, many were sent for early advanced imaging tests.

“This study raises concerns about excessive use of low-value and potentially harmful treatments for the common problem of lower back pain in older adults, with under-use of evidence-based, guideline-recommended treatments,” Ly said in a statement.

In fact, none of the study participants had received opioid treatments prior to seeking care for their new back pain, the researchers wrote. 

Ly acknowledges that low back pain management can be challenging in older adults. However, most patients with the condition “improve over time regardless of treatment,” according to the ACP.

As part of an effort to increase therapeutic alternatives to opioid painkillers, Medicare this week announced that it will begin covering acupuncture, McKnight’s reported.