Lumbar spinal fusion. Outcome in relation to surgical methods, choice of implant and postoperative rehabilitation

Finn Bjarke Christensen
Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica. Supplementum 2004, 75 (313): 2-43

UNLABELLED: Chronic low back pain (CLBP) has become one of the most common causes of disability in adults under 45 years of age and is consequently one of the most common reasons for early retirement in industrialised societies. Accordingly, CLBP represents an expensive drain on society's resources and is a very challenging area for which a consensus for rational therapy is yet to be established. The spinal fusion procedure was introduced as a treatment option for CLBP more than 70 years ago. However, few areas of spinal surgery have caused so much controversy as spinal fusion. The literature reveals divergent opinions about when fusion is indicated and how it should be performed. Furthermore, the significance of the role of postoperative rehabilitation following spinal fusion may be underestimated. There exists no consensus on the design of a program specific for rehabilitation. Ideally, for any given surgical procedure, it should be possible to identify not only possible complications relative to a surgical procedure, but also what symptoms may be expected, and what pain behaviour may be expected of a particular patient. The overall aims of the current studies were: 1) to introduce patient-based functional outcome evaluation into spinal fusion treatment; 2) to evaluate radiological assessment of different spinal fusion procedures; 3) to investigate the effect of titanium versus stainless steel pedicle screws on mechanical fixation and bone ingrowth in lumbar spinal fusion; 4) to analyse the clinical and radiological outcome of different lumbar spinal fusion techniques; 5) to evaluate complications and re-operation rates following different surgical procedures; and 6) to analyse the effect of different rehabilitation strategies for lumbar spinal fusion patients. The present thesis comprises 9 studies: 2 clinical retrospective studies, 1 clinical prospective case/reference study, 5 clinical randomised prospective studies and 1 animal study (Mini-pigs). In total, 594 patients were included in the investigation from 1979 to 1999. Each had prior to inclusion at least 2 years of CLBP and had therefore been subjected to most of the conservative treatment leg pain, due to localized isthmic spondylolisthesis grades I-II or primary or secondary degeneration. PATIENT-BASED FUNCTIONAL OUTCOME: Patients' self-reported parameters should include the impact of CLBP on daily activity, work and leisure time activities, anxiety/depression, social interests and intensity of back and leg pain. Between 1993 and 2003 approximately 1400 lumbar spinal fusion patients completed the Dallas Pain Questionnaire under prospective design studies. In 1996, the Low Back Pain Rating scale was added to the standard questionnaire packet distributed among spinal fusion patients. In our experience, these tools are valid instruments for clinical assessment of candidates for spinal fusion procedures.

RADIOLOGICAL ASSESSMENT: It is extremely difficult to interpret radiographs of both lumbar posterolateral fusion and anterior interbody fusion. Plain radiographs are clearly not the perfect media for analysis of spinal fusion, but until new and better diagnostic methods are available for clinical use, radiographs will remain the golden standard. Therefore, the development of a detailed reliable radiographic classification system is highly desirable. The classification used in the present thesis for the evaluation of posteroalteral spinal fusion, both with and without instrumentation, demonstrated good interobserver and intraobserver agreement. The classification showed acceptable reliability and may be one way to improve interstudy and intrastudy correlation of radiologic outcomes after posterolateral spinal fusion. Radiology-based evaluation of anterior lumbar interbody fusion is further complicated when cages are employed. The use of different cage designs and materials makes it almost impossible to establish a standard radiological classification system for anterior fusions. BONE-SCREW INTERFACE: Mechanical binding at the bone-screw interface was significantly greater for titanium pedicle screws than it was for stainless steel. This could be explained by the fact that the titanium screws had superior bone on-growth. There was no correlation between screw removal torques and pull-out strength. Clinically, the use of titanium and titanium-alloy pedicle screws may be preferable for osteoporotic patients and those with decreased osteogenesis.

OUTCOME: The present series of studies observed significant long-term functional improvement for approximately 70% of patients who had undergone lumbar spinal fusion procedure. Solid fusion as determined from radiographs ranged from 52% to 92% depending on the choice of surgical procedure. The choice of surgical procedure should relate to the diagnosis, as patients with isthmic spondylolisthesis (Grades I and II) are best served with posterolateral fusion without instrumentation, and patients with disc degeneration seem to gain most from instrumented posterolateral fusion or circumferential fusion.

COMPLICATIONS: The number of perioperative complications increased with the use of pedicle screw systems to support posterolateral fusions and increased further with the use of circumferential fusions. There was no significant association between outcome result and perioperative complications. The risk of reoperation within 2 years after the spinal fusion procedure was, however, significantly lower for those who had received circumferential fusion in comparison to posterolateral fusion with instrumentation. Furthermore, the risk of non-union was found to be significantly lower for patients who had received circumferential fusion as compared to posterolateral fusion with and without instrumentation. The complications of sexual dysfunction and fusion at non-intended levels were found to be significant but without influence on the overall outcome.

REHABILITATION: The patients in the Back-café group performed a succession of many daily tasks significantly better and moreover had less pain compared with both the Video and Training groups 2 years after lumbar spinal fusion. The Video group had significantly greater treatment demands outside the hospital system. This study demonstrates the importance of the inclusion of coping schemes and questions the role of intensive exercises in a rehabilitation program for spinal fusion patients.

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