BACKGROUND: Lumbar radiculopathy is characterized by radiating pain with or without motor weakness or sensory disturbances; the point prevalence ranges from 1.6 to 13.4%. The objective of this review was to determine the efficacy, safety, and cost of surgical versus nonsurgical management of symptomatic lumbar radiculopathy in adults.
METHODS: We searched PubMed from January 1, 2007, to April 10, 2019 with hand searches of systematic reviews for studies prior to 2007. One reviewer extracted data and a second checked for accuracy. Two reviewers completed independent risk of bias and strength of evidence ratings.
RESULTS: We included seven RCTs (N = 1158) and three cost-effectiveness analysis. Surgery reduced leg pain by 6 to 26 points more than nonsurgical interventions as measured on a 0- to 100-point visual analog scale of pain at up to 26 weeks follow-up; differences between groups did not persist at 1 year or later. The evidence was somewhat mixed for function and disability in follow-up through 26 weeks (standardized mean difference [SMD] - 0.16 (95% CI, - 0.30 to - 0.03); minimal differences were observed at 2 years (SMD - 0.06 (95% CI, - 0.20 to 0.07). There were similar improvements in quality of life, neurologic symptoms, and return to work. No surgical deaths occurred and surgical morbidity was infrequent. The incidence of reoperations ranged from 0 to 10%. The average cost per quality-adjusted life year gained from a healthcare payor perspective ranged from $51,156 to $83,322 for surgery compared to nonsurgical interventions.
DISCUSSION: Most findings are based on a body of RCT evidence graded as low to very low certainty. Compared with nonsurgical interventions, surgery probably reduces pain and improves function in the short- and medium-term, but this difference does not persist in the long-term. Although surgery appears to be safe, it may or may not be cost-effective depending on a decision maker's willingness to pay threshold.