Study design: A prospective clinical trial was conducted.
Objectives: To determine the feasibility of removing activity restrictions after surgery and encouraging early return to work; to ascertain the clinical and behavioral response to such a strategy; and to identify factors predictive of early return to work, preparatory to possible randomized clinical trials.
Summary of background information: Current practice usually entails several weeks to several months of restricted activities after lumbar discectomy to avoid disc "reinjury." Earlier work has suggested these restrictions may not be necessary.
Methods: One hundred fifty-two consecutive working patients undergoing limited open discectomy for herniated lumbar intervertebral disc were treated postoperatively with no activity restrictions. Patients were encouraged to return to full activities as soon as possible. The patients were followed for a minimum of 2 years (average follow-up time = 4.8 years). At follow-up, an independent examiner evaluated each patient and collected further postoperative data.
Results: One hundred forty-nine of the 152 patients (98%) returned to work. The average work loss was 1.2 weeks and 148 of 149 patients had returned to full duty by 8 weeks. Approximately one-third of the group returned to work within 1 week of surgery (32%), many the next day. Statistical analysis demonstrated very early return to work did not correlate with either recurrent sciatica, reoperation for reherniation, or ultimate clinical outcome. Seventeen patients (11.2%) had possible reherniations (recurrent sciatica) and eight underwent reoperation (5.3%).
Conclusion: Lifting of postoperative activity restrictions after limited discectomy allowed shortened time to return to work relative to the 4 to 16 weeks commonly recommended. Complication rates appear comparable to those reported in the literature for patients under postoperative restrictions. Postoperative restrictions may not be necessary in most patients.