Background and methods: Bed rest is widely advocated for sciatica, but its effectiveness has not been established. To study the effectiveness of bed rest in patients with a lumbosacral radicular syndrome of sufficient severity to justify treatment with bed rest for two weeks, we randomly assigned 183 subjects to either bed rest or watchful waiting for this period. The primary outcome measures were the investigator's and patient's global assessments of improvement after 2 and 12 weeks, and the secondary outcome measures were changes in functional status and in pain scores (after 2, 3, and 12 weeks), absenteeism from work, and the need for surgical intervention. Neither the investigators who assessed the outcomes nor those involved in data entry and analysis were aware of the patients' treatment assignments.
Results: After two weeks, 64 of the 92 patients in the bed-rest group (70 percent) reported improvement, as compared with 59 of the 91 patients in the control (watchful-waiting) group (65 percent) (adjusted odds ratio for improvement in the bed-rest group, 1.2; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.6 to 2.3). After 12 weeks, 87 percent of the patients in both groups reported improvement. The results of assessments of the intensity of pain, the bothersomeness of symptoms, and functional status revealed no significant differences between the two groups. The extent of absenteeism from work and rates of surgical intervention were similar in the two groups.
Conclusions: Among patients with symptoms and signs of a lumbosacral radicular syndrome, bed rest is not a more effective therapy than watchful waiting.