When functional scales are to be used as treatment outcome measures, it is essential to know how responsive they are to clinical change. This information is essential not only for clinical decision-making, but also for the determination of sample size in clinical trials. The present study examined the responsiveness of a German version of the Oswestry Disability Index version 2.1 (ODI) after surgical treatment for low back pain. Before spine surgery 63 patients completed a questionnaire booklet containing the ODI, along with a 0-10 pain visual analogue scale (VAS), the Roland Morris disability questionnaire, and Likert scales for disability, medication intake and pain frequency. Six months after surgery, 57 (90%) patients completed the same questionnaire booklet and also answered Likert-scale questions on the global result of surgery, and on improvements in pain and disability. Both the effect size for the ODI change score 6 months after surgery (0.87) and the area under the receiver operating characteristics (ROC) curve for the relative improvement in ODI score in relation to global outcome 6 months after surgery (0.90) indicated that the ODI showed good responsiveness. The ROC method revealed that a minimum reduction of the baseline (pre-surgery) ODI score by 18% (equal to a mean 8-point reduction in this patient group) represented the cut-off for indicating a "good" individual outcome 6 months after surgery (sensitivity 91.4% and specificity 82.4%). The German version of the ODI is a sensitive instrument for detecting clinical change after spinal surgery. Individual improvements after surgery of at least an 18% reduction on baseline values are associated with a good outcome. This figure can be used as a reliable guide for the determination of sample size in future clinical trials of spinal surgery.