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Kia āta kōwhiri Choosing Wisely

The Choosing Wisely campaign seeks to reduce harm from unnecessary and low-value tests and treatment.

Recommendations and resources

1) Don’t perform imaging of the carotid arteries for simple faints.

Syncope is common, with a lifetime prevalence of 40%. Carotid imaging studies such as carotid duplex scans are commonly performed in patients presenting with syncope. When symptomatic, occlusive carotid artery disease causes focal neurologic symptoms such as weakness, altered sensation or speech, and not syncope. In addition, studies demonstrate that even elderly patients with syncope are unlikely to have carotid occlusive disease. Therefore, performing carotid imaging studies in patients with syncope increases cost without adding benefit. Furthermore, carotid imaging may identify incidental asymptomatic occlusive carotid artery disease that may be inappropriately assumed to be the cause of the syncope. This can delay the identification of the true cause of syncope and may subject the patient to additional risk-associated procedures such as catheter angiography, carotid endarterectomy (CEA), or carotid stenting.

2) Don’t perform imaging of the brain for non-acute primary headache disorders.

Headache is a common disorder with many potential causes. The primary headache disorders, which include migraine and tension headaches, account for the majority of headaches. Secondary headaches, which are those with underlying pathology (e.g., tumour, aneurysm, or giant cell arteritis) are far less common. Most patients presenting with headache will not have a serious underlying condition. Neuroimaging is not usually warranted for patients with recurrent migraine or tension headaches and a normal neurological examination. The likelihood of significant intracranial lesions on CT or MRI in this group ranges from 0.3% to 0.4%. Headache worsened by Valsalva manoeuvre, headache causing awakening from sleep, new headache in the older population, or progressively worsening headache may indicate a higher likelihood of finding significant abnormalities on CT or MRI as does the presence of abnormal neurological signs on examination.

3) Don’t perform epidural steroid injections to treat patients with low back pain who do not have radicular symptoms in the legs originating from the nerve roots.

Lumbar epidural steroid injections may provide limited short term benefit (less than 3-6 months) for patients with an acute lumbar radiculopathy causing back pain and symptoms in the legs (Level C evidence). When there is low back pain alone, the outcomes of epidural steroid injections are poor. Although serious adverse events are rare, catastrophic events can occur and any symptom relief from the injection is typically brief. The inconsequential benefits of epidural steroid injections for low back pain without radicular symptoms do not outweigh its risks, no matter how small they may be.

4) Don’t use opioids for the treatment of migraine, except in rare circumstances.

Migraine is the most frequent cause of headache seen in the medical office, urgent care, or emergency department. Almost all patients should receive migraine-specific medications or non-opioid analgesics because these medications are the most effective migraine treatments. However, many patients continue to receive opioids for migraine treatment. Use of opioids increases the risk of headache and chronic migraine arising from medication overuse. The per capita cost of headache and chronic migraine arising from medication overuse is 3 times that of episodic migraine. When medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease or pregnancy preclude use of migraine-specific treatments, or when migraine-specific treatments fail, opioids are sometimes considered for rescue therapy. In these circumstances, use should be limited to 9 days per month or less to avoid medication overuse headache, and doctors should continue to focus on preventive and behavioural aspects of migraine care. In addition, long-term follow-up is needed to prevent treatment complications.

5) Don’t routinely recommend surgery for a narrowed carotid artery (>50% stenosis) that has not caused symptoms.

Best medical therapy is generally the appropriate management of patients with asymptomatic carotid stenosis. Medical treatment has improved since trials comparing carotid endarterectomy (CEA) plus best medical treatment with best medical treatment in asymptomatic carotid stenosis were conducted. There is evidence that the annual stroke rate in patients with asymptomatic carotid stenosis receiving best medical treatment has fallen to ≤1% annually. The effectiveness of CEA compared with current best medical therapy is not established. Additionally, randomised trials suggested equivocal benefit in women and patients aged >75. It may be reasonable to consider CEA for highly selected patient aged 70% stenosis of the internal carotid artery. Where the perioperative risk of stroke, death and myocardial infarction is <3% and the patient is estimated to have a life expectancy of more than 3 to 5 years, consultation with a physician with expertise in stroke care is recommended prior to surgery.

Supporting evidence

Last reviewed January 2016

How this list was developed

The ANZAN Council considered 12 clinical practices in neurology which may be overused, inappropriate or of limited effectiveness in a given clinical context. After choosing the top 5 items to prioritise, these were passed on to the appropriate subspecialty committees within ANZAN for comment and additional suggestions. The final list of the top 5 items chosen was compiled following a review of the evidence and the formulation of suitable recommendations and endorsed by the Council on 7th January 2016.


Published: 10 Dec 2021 Modified: 10 Dec 2021