Background: A growing number of patients suffer from severe low back pain of discogenic origin that is not responsive to conservative medical management. These patients must consider the option of surgical spinal fusion or minimally-invasive intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET).
Objective: To conduct a systematic review of clinical outcomes in patients undergoing spinal fusion or the intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET) procedure for intractable discogenic low back pain.
Design: Systematic literature review.
Methods: English-language journal articles published from January 1995 to December 2005 were identified through computerized searches of the PubMed database and bibliographies of identified articles and review papers. Articles were selected if disc degeneration or disruption was the primary indication for spinal fusion or the IDET procedure and if follow-up outcome data included evaluations of back pain severity, condition-specific functional impairment and/or health-related quality of life. The literature reviewed encompassed 33 spinal fusion articles: 10 randomized controlled trials, 1 nonrandomized controlled trial, 9 before-after trials, and 13 case series. There were 18 IDET articles: 2 randomized controlled trial, 2 nonrandomized controlled trials, 11 before- after trials, and 3 case series. Data were extracted and summarized on patient characteristics, surgical methods, and clinical outcomes.
Results: Overall, there were similar median percentage improvements realized after spinal fusion and the IDET procedure, respectively, for 2 of the 3 outcomes evaluated: pain severity (50%, 51%), back function (42%, 14%) and quality of life (46%, 43%). There was an identifiable randomized controlled trials trend of both treatments reporting a smaller magnitude of improvement in all 3 primary outcomes (pain severity, back function, quality of life) compared to other types of trials. Perioperative complications were commonly associated with spinal fusion (median: 14%, range: 2% to 54%, n = 31 study groups) whereas adverse events were rarely experienced with the IDET procedure (median: 0%, range: 0% to 16%, n = 14 studies). Randomized controlled trials of spinal fusion, in particular, had important methodological limitations.
Conclusion: The majority of patients reported improvement in symptoms following both spinal fusion and the IDET procedure. The IDET procedure appears to offer sufficiently similar symptom amelioration to spinal fusion without the attendant complications.