Spine surgery more beneficial for leg pain than low back pain in two conditions

Sep 12 2011
Patients who undergo spine surgery for either spinal stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis may experience greater reductions in leg pain than low back pain, according to new research.

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which parts of the spine that protect the spinal cord begin to narrow and put pressure on it, which can lead to pain or numbness in the back, arms or legs. In severe cases, spinal stenosis can cause loss of sexual function as well as bowel and bladder control, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Muskuloskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The disease usually affects adults more than 50 years old; younger people may also have spinal stenosis due to birth defects or injury.

Degenerative spondylolisthesis happens when one vertebra slips out on top of the one beneath it, which can cause symptoms similar to spinal stenosis, according to NIAMS.

In order to provide better guidance for physicians treating spinal conditions, NIAMS supports the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial, a multicenter series of medical trials dating back to the early 2000s. One trial compared the results of spine surgery versus nonsurgical treatment for patients who had either spinal stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis. Out of the individuals who had the former condition, 32 percent were mostly bothered by leg pain, while 26 percent said back pain was their main problem. Similarly, 34 percent of patients with degenerative spondylolisthesis reported leg pain as their primary concern.

When it came to assessing how well spine surgery eliminated pain, people who attributed most of their pain to their leg benefited more from surgery than those who mainly complained about their back. However, the latter group still had greater reduction in pain than subjects who had no surgery at all. The results suggest that while spine surgery can help people experiencing problems in their back or leg, patients with leg pain may benefit more, NIAMS said.