An eight-year study finds that surgery is more effective than nonsurgical treatments for herniated discs in the lower spine, commonly called the lumbar region.
"Carefully selected patients who underwent surgery for a lumbar disc herniation achieved greater improvement than non-operatively treated patients," according to lead author Dr. Jon D. Lurie of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Geisel School of Medicine and colleagues.
The results add to the evidence for surgical treatment of herniated discs — but also show that nonsurgical treatment can provide lasting benefits for some patients. The study is being published in the January issue of Spine.
The researchers analyzed data from the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT), one of the largest clinical trials of surgery for spinal disorders. In SPORT, patients meeting strict criteria for herniated discs in the lumbar spine underwent surgery or nonsurgical treatment such as physical therapy, exercise, and pain-relieving medications.
Patients with herniated discs experience back pain, leg pain (sciatica), and other symptoms caused by pressure on the spinal nerve roots.
The current analysis included eight-year follow-up data on 1,244 patients treated at 13 spine clinics across the United States. About 500 patients were randomly assigned to surgery -- a procedure called discectomy -- or nonsurgical treatment, although patients were allowed to "cross over" to the other treatment.
For the remaining patients, decisions as to surgery or nonsurgical treatment were left up to the patients and their doctors. Standard measures of pain, physical functioning, and disability were compared between groups.
When outcomes were compared for patients who underwent surgery versus nonsurgical treatment, significant differences emerged. On a 100-point pain scale, pain scores averaged about 11 points lower in the surgery group. Measures of physical functioning and disability showed similar differences.
Surgery also led to greater improvement in some additional outcomes, including the bothersomeness of sciatica symptoms, patient satisfaction, and self-rated improvement.
While average outcome scores were better with surgery, many patients had significant improvement with nonsurgical treatment.
Lumbar disc surgery is one of the most commonly performed operations in the United States, although rates vary considerably in different regions.