Surgery for low back pain: a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society Clinical Practice Guideline

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 May 1;34(10):1094-109. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181a105fc.


Study design: Systematic review.

Objective: To systematically assess benefits and harms of surgery for nonradicular back pain with common degenerative changes, radiculopathy with herniated lumbar disc, and symptomatic spinal stenosis.

Summary of background data: Although back surgery rates continue to increase, there is uncertainty or controversy about utility of back surgery for various conditions.

Methods: Electronic database searches on Ovid MEDLINE and the Cochrane databases were conducted through July 2008 to identify randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews of the above therapies. All relevant studies were methodologically assessed by 2 independent reviewers using criteria developed by the Cochrane Back Review Group (for trials) and Oxman (for systematic reviews). A qualitative synthesis of results was performed using methods adapted from the US Preventive Services Task Force.

Results: For nonradicular low back pain with common degenerative changes, we found fair evidence that fusion is no better than intensive rehabilitation with a cognitive-behavioral emphasis for improvement in pain or function, but slightly to moderately superior to standard (nonintensive) nonsurgical therapy. Less than half of patients experience optimal outcomes (defined as no more than sporadic pain, slight restriction of function, and occasional analgesics) following fusion. Clinical benefits of instrumented versus noninstrumented fusion are unclear. For radiculopathy with herniated lumbar disc, we found good evidence that standard open discectomy and microdiscectomy are moderately superior to nonsurgical therapy for improvement in pain and function through 2 to 3 months. For symptomatic spinal stenosis with or without degenerative spondylolisthesis, we found good evidence that decompressive surgery is moderately superior to nonsurgical therapy through 1 to 2 years. For both conditions, patients on average experience improvement either with or without surgery, and benefits associated with surgery decrease with long-term follow-up in some trials. Although there is fair evidence that artificial disc replacement is similarly effective compared to fusion for single level degenerative disc disease and that an interspinous spacer device is superior to nonsurgical therapy for 1- or 2-level spinal stenosis with symptoms relieved with forward flexion, insufficient evidence exists to judge long-term benefits or harms.

Conclusion: Surgery for radiculopathy with herniated lumbar disc and symptomatic spinal stenosis is associated with short-term benefits compared to nonsurgical therapy, though benefits diminish with long-term follow-up in some trials. For nonradicular back pain with common degenerative changes, fusion is no more effective than intensive rehabilitation, but associated with small to moderate benefits compared to standard nonsurgical therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / etiology
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / physiopathology
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / surgery
  • Low Back Pain / etiology
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Low Back Pain / surgery*
  • Neurosurgical Procedures / methods*
  • Neurosurgical Procedures / statistics & numerical data*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / methods*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Radiculopathy / etiology
  • Radiculopathy / physiopathology
  • Radiculopathy / surgery
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome