Lumbar surgery in work-related chronic low back pain: can a continuum of care enhance outcomes?

Spine J. 2014 Feb 1;14(2):263-73. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2013.10.041. Epub 2013 Nov 12.


Background context: Systematic reviews of lumbar fusion outcomes in purely workers' compensation (WC) patient populations have indicated mixed results for efficacy. Recent studies on lumbar fusions in the WC setting have reported return-to-work rates of 26% to 36%, reoperation rates of 22% to 27%, and high rates of persistent opioid use 2 years after surgery. Other types of lumbar surgery in WC populations are also acknowledged to have poorer outcomes than in non-WC. The possibility of improving outcomes by employing a biopsychosocial model with a continuum of care, including postoperative functional restoration in this "at risk" population, has been suggested as a possible solution.

Purpose: To compare objective socioeconomic and patient-reported outcomes for WC patients with different lumbar surgeries followed by functional restoration, relative to matched comparison patients without surgery.

Study design/setting: A prospective cohort study of chronic disabling occupational lumbar disorder (CDOLD) patients with WC claims treated in an interdisciplinary functional restoration program.

Patient sample: A consecutive cohort of 564 patients with prerehabilitation surgery completed a functional restoration and was divided into groups based on surgery type: lumbar fusion (F group, N=331) and nonfusion lumbar spine surgery (NF group, N=233). An unoperated comparison group was matched for length of disability (U group, N=349).

Outcome measures: Validated patient-reported measures of pain, disability, and depression were administered pre- and postrehabilitation. Socioeconomic outcomes were collected via a structured 1-year "after" interview.

Methods: All patients completed an intensive, medically supervised functional restoration program combining quantitatively directed exercise progression with a multimodal disability management approach. The writing of this article was supported in part by National Institutes of Health Grant 1K05-MH-71892; no conflicts of interest are noted among the authors.

Results: The F group had a longer length of disability compared with the NF and U groups (M=31.6, 21.7, and 25.9 months, respectively, p<.001). There were relatively few statistically significant differences for any socioeconomically relevant outcome among groups, with virtually identical postrehabilitation return-to-work (F=81%, NF=84%, U=85%, p=.409). The groups differed significantly after surgery on diagnosis of major depressive disorder and opioid dependence disorder as well as patient-reported depressive symptoms and pain intensity prerehabilitation. However, no significant differences in patient-reported outcomes were found postrehabilitation. Prerehabilitation opioid dependence disorder significantly predicted lower rates of work return and work retention as well as higher rates of treatment-seeking behavior. Higher levels of prerehabilitation perceived disability and depressive symptoms were significant risk factors for poorer work return and retention outcomes.

Conclusions: Lumbar surgery in the WC system (particularly lumbar fusion) have the potential achieve positive outcomes that are comparable to CDOLD patients treated nonoperatively. This study suggests that surgeons have the opportunity to improve lumbar surgery outcomes in the WC system, even for complex fusion CDOLD patients with multiple prior operations, if they control postoperative opioid dependence and prevent an excessive length of disability. Through early referral of patients (who fail to respond to usual postoperative care) to interdisciplinary rehabilitation, the surgeon determining this continuum of care may accelerate recovery and achieve socioeconomic outcomes of relevance to the patient and WC jurisdiction through the combination of surgery and postoperative rehabilitation.

Keywords: Biopsychosocial model; Chronic disabling occupational spinal disorders; Deconditioning syndrome; Depression; Functional restoration; Lumbar spinal fusion; Opioid dependence; Return to work; Risk factors; Workers' compensation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Chronic Disease / drug therapy
  • Chronic Disease / psychology
  • Chronic Disease / rehabilitation
  • Disability Evaluation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / drug therapy
  • Low Back Pain / rehabilitation*
  • Low Back Pain / surgery
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / surgery
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Diseases / drug therapy
  • Occupational Diseases / rehabilitation*
  • Occupational Diseases / surgery
  • Orthopedic Procedures / psychology
  • Orthopedic Procedures / rehabilitation*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Recovery of Function / physiology
  • Spinal Fusion / psychology
  • Spinal Fusion / rehabilitation
  • Workers' Compensation / economics
  • Workers' Compensation / standards*
  • Workers' Compensation / trends


  • Analgesics, Opioid