A common osteoporosis treatment is nothing but a sham, says a study by an Australian university.
The treatment, called percutaneous vertebroplasty, was listed on the Medicare Benefits Scheme in late 2005.
At a price of about $3,000 a treatment, bone cement is injected into broken vertebrae in almost 700 patients each year.
Osteoporosis is a growing public health concern in Australia as the population gets older and decreased bone density means more painful vertebrae fractures.
In what is described as a world-first study, the Monash University and the Cabrini Research Institute in Melbourne gave 38 patients the procedure and 40 patients a sham treatment.
After six months, researchers found that both sets of patients had improved by the same degree.
"Our trial found that vertebroplasty was no better than a sham procedure for improving pain, function or quality of life," said Professor Rachelle Buchbinder who conducted the trial.
"There were many potential risks, the risk that we're particularly concerned about is whether or not it increases an already high risk of having a further fracture after you've had the procedure," she said.
In fact, the procedure may be doing more harm than good.
"Approximately one in five men and one in four women over the age of 50 can expect to have at least one of these fractures in their lifetime," she said.
Professor Buchbinder says at this stage, there are no effective treatments for people suffering from fractured vertebrae.
"The best that we do is supportive care, so trying to make the pain bearable with strong analgesics," she said.
"But it's important to remember that there's a range of severity of symptoms and some patients are asymptomatic and some patients have severe pain.
"But whatever the degree of symptoms, it does improve over time."