Patient Selection for Spine Surgery

Published on 27/03/2015 by admin

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Chapter 27 Patient Selection for Spine Surgery

Between 70% and 85% of all people will have back pain at some time in their lives.1 Lumbar spine disorders are the most common cause of disability in persons younger than 45 years of age.2 More than 500,000 lumbar procedures are performed each year for the treatment of lumbar spine disorders.3 Of those with low back pain (LBP), approximately 151,000 undergo a lumbar fusion each year.4 Given the large number of individuals that experience back pain, one can only surmise that the number of surgeries performed on the lumbar spine will continue to increase. The vast majority of patients with lumbar spine problems do not require surgery. Nonoperative treatment, however, is very expensive, and the data regarding its efficacy demonstrate equivocal results, at best. It is important for the physician to truly appreciate the indications for lumbar spine surgery, and also to become adept at determining the optimal surgical procedure when surgery is indeed indicated. Based on the best evidence available, this chapter addresses patient selection, clinical management results, and surgical outcomes of surgery for LBP.

Patient Evaluation

Most commonly, the preoperative evaluation should include the history, physical examination, and any warranted imaging tests, such as radiographs, MRI, and CT. Occasionally, blood work, electromyographs (EMGs), and bone scans are used in the evaluation as well. The bone quality should be evaluated with a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan whenever osteoporosis is of concern, especially when major reconstructive surgery is contemplated.

The history is certainly the most important component of the diagnostic process. It also is used to guide treatment. It should include the duration of symptoms, location of pain, any exacerbating and relieving maneuvers, a very detailed description of the radiation of pain, and any constitutional symptoms. The past medical history also is very important, particularly smoking habits. The history of, and response to, conservative management strategies employed for the current complaint (e.g., physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, injections, weight management) must be documented. The quality, intensity, and quantity of the conservative management should also be determined. The type of, number of, and response to injections also should be documented. Selective nerve root blocks, even if the relief given the patient is for only a few days or even hours, provide the surgeon with a great deal of information. Finally, the assessment of the patient’s level of energy, mood, affect, and pain pattern is paramount to diagnose problems such as depression, fibromyalgia, and anxiety that may very well manifest as back pain. It is much easier to recommend surgical treatment for the lumbar spine when clear symptoms of radiculopathy and/or claudicant central stenosis are present, especially with associated loss of sensation and/or motor strength. Imaging evidence of instability makes the surgeon’s decision a bit easier, especially when coupled with “hard” neurologic findings. Greater difficulty arises when no deficits are present. In such cases, conservative nonoperative treatment should be considered most strongly.

The differential diagnosis of identifiable causes for back pain overlaps with psychosocial diseases and conditions, which can be the source of significant frustration for both surgeon and patient. Medications also should be recorded. Every attempt should be made not to place the patient with chronic back pain on narcotic medication. The detoxification process is a difficult and long one, but is paramount for the success of the treatment. The help of a pain management specialist and psychosocial support usually is quite beneficial.

The intensity and duration, as well as the disability caused by the pain, also play a major role in the decision-making process. A patient who rates the pain as a 1 or 2 on a scale from 1 to 10 and is still working and able to perform daily activities will be managed differently from a person who cannot work, is on disability, and rates the pain 8 out of 10.

Use of the visual analogue scale (VAS) to assess the extent and distribution of pain should also be considered. With the VAS, the patient specifies the level of pain by indicating a position along a continuous line between two end points (0 and 10). The VAS obtained preoperatively and postoperatively can be compared to examine efficacy of treatment.

Individual factors such as work-related injuries and psychosocial support also should be assessed. Low job satisfaction, litigation, and workers’ compensation can be predictive of a poor outcome.5 Trief et al. looked at 160 patients who underwent lumbar spinal fusion. The patients completed preoperative questionnaires regarding their mental health, functional status, workers’ compensation, and job satisfaction. Patients with higher mental component scores reported less back and leg pain.5 In randomized controlled trials (RCTs) from Fairbank et al.6 and Fritzel et al.,7 patients in litigation did worse after spinal fusion than their counterparts who were not in litigation. With these studies, however, both subgroups that underwent surgery (with and without litigation) did better than the matched patients who underwent conservative management. The group of patients with the worst response overall were the patients in litigation who received conservative treatment. This, however, was not statistically significant. In another RCT by Haag et al.,8 several sociologic factors were analyzed 2 years after fusion (workers’ compensation, disability pension, unemployment, sick leave due to back pain, cohabitant/married). Overall, the operative group did better than the conservative treatment group. However, the groups that realized the greatest improvement were patients with a lighter job, not cohabiting/married, and not on sick leave. In a recent literature review, Mroz et al.9 demonstrated that people in litigation usually fare poorly. Nevertheless, they do even worse with conservative treatment. They concluded that socioeconomic factors should not be the sole factor to contraindicate surgical treatment for back pain. Health-related factors such as obesity and smoking also play a role. Recent studies have demonstrated an increase in surgical site infections in morbidly obese patients.10 Elderly obese patients undergoing lumbar surgery report a high rate of dissatisfaction with the surgery outcome compared with nonobese patients.10 Smoking is known to be a predictor of poor surgical outcome in lumbar fusion surgery. Habitual nicotine use is thought to decrease the revascularization of the graft, slowing healing rates and increasing the risk of infection and of pseudarthrosis.11 There are no clear guidelines on preoperative lumbar fusion and cessation of smoking. However, patients should be encouraged to stop smoking as early as possible before undergoing surgery to increase the chance of long-term success.

Chronic LBP may trigger anxiety, depression, and fear, thereby changing the way people perceive pain. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the most widely used personality tests. Patients are asked to answer questions regarding their anxiety and depressive symptoms. The scale attempts to identify patients who are preoccupied with their symptoms, are depressed, or feel a high level of anxiety, because these individuals tend to fare worse.12 These factors are more predictive of a good outcome than physical findings or radiographic measures. Studies have suggested that fear-avoidance beliefs about physical activity and work might form specific cognitions intervening between LBP and disability.13 A Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire (FABQ) was developed, based on theories of fear and avoidance behavior and focused specifically on patients’ beliefs about how physical activity and work affected their LBP. FABQ screening could be useful in patient evaluation for lumbar surgery because it could accurately identify subjects with elevated levels of fear.13

After the history is collected, the physical examination should focus on deficits in sensation, muscular weakness, deep tendon reflexes, and any abnormal reflexes such as a Hoffman or Babinski reflex.14 The clinician also should be aware of any suspicious symptoms or signs that are consistent with malingering. These physical examination findings include pain at the top of the tailbone, entire leg pain or numbness, giveaway weakness, persistent pain, intolerance to treatment, and multiple emergency admissions to hospitals with simple backache (Waddell signs). Clinicians should also be wary of patients who present with a gross limp, use of physical supports (e.g., corset, crutches, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation [TENS] unit), or any continuous or repetitive movement.15 A well-performed hip examination that includes palpation of the greater trochanter to rule out bursitis as well as rotational maneuvers to rule out primary hip joint pathology is imperative when examining the lumbar spine, as are the shoulder and upper extremity peripheral nerves examination when examining the neck. It is very important to be aware of and not miss the “red flag” signs in a patient with pain of spinal origin. The clinician should consider ordering imaging studies after the first encounter in patients with a history of trauma, night pain, weight loss, cancer, persistent weakness, urinary or fecal incontinence, saddle anesthesia, or constitutional symptoms.16

In summary, it is very difficult to determine whether a surgical intervention will be beneficial to a patient who presents with LBP. Radiographic evidence of instability may support the argument for surgery. A thorough understanding of the psychosocial situation is imperative. The optimal surgical candidate is a patient who is highly motivated to improve, preferably is not involved in litigation, is not on disability, is not depressed, is physically fit, and does not smoke. This patient has undergone extensive medical management and still is not happy with the result, has significant pain or disability, has a concordant physical examination and imaging tests, is familiar with the results of surgery for LBP, trusts his or her surgeon, and is willing to proceed with surgery. Such patients with back pain represent a significant minority of all back pain patients.

Case Presentation 1: The Importance of Standing Films

The patient presented with a chief complaint of L3, L4, and L5 radiculopathy in the right lower extremity. The MRI examination (Fig. 27-1A) shows stenosis, predominantly foraminal (not shown in this cut). No deformity or instability is observed. On standing radiographs (Figs. 27-1B and C), 12-cm coronal and 17-cm sagittal imbalances are discovered. The imbalances significantly affect the clinical decision-making process.

Low Back Pain: Evidence for Treatment

Certain criteria have been historically accepted in discussing the indications for lumbar fusion. Trauma-related injuries such as unstable fractures, fracture-dislocations, or traumatic spondylolisthesis are all acceptable reasons to perform a lumbar fusion. Scoliosis, infection, and tumor with instability or neurologic deficit also may be indications for surgery. With other pathologies, the indications are not nearly as clear.

Low Back Surgery for Adult Low-Grade Spondylolisthesis

Low-Grade Spondylolisthesis: To Fuse or Not to Fuse? Role of Instrumentation? Best Approach?

When assessing the role of fusion in the management of adult low-grade spondylolisthesis, Herkowitz and Kurz22 performed an RCT comparing decompression alone with decompression and uninstrumented PLF (posterolateral fusion). A mean 3-year follow-up demonstrated better outcomes for leg and back pain for the fusion group (P = .0001). Other authors in prospective nonrandomized23 and retrospective2426 series also support decompression and fusion over decompression alone when spondylolisthesis is present.

The role of instrumentation in achieving fusion and improving clinical outcomes in low-grade spondylolisthesis was studied by Fischgrund et al.27 in an RCT. Patients were divided into two groups: (1) decompression and noninstrumented PLF and (2) decompression with instrumented PLF (pedicle screws). The fusion rate was 83% versus 45%, respectively, for the instrumented versus noninstrumented groups. Clinical outcomes, however, were similar for both groups (78% vs. 85%, instrumented vs. noninstrumented). Kornblum et al. 28

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