Workers’ Comp Study: Lumbar Fusion Surgery Fails 74% of the Time

Did you know that the annual number of spinal fusion operations in the U.S. increased more than 75 percent between 1996 and 2001?  But “failed back sugary syndrome” is still a common problem, with enormous costs to patients, insurers, and society.

According to a study published in Spine last year, spinal fusion surgeries often backfire, failing an astonishing 74 percent of the time!

Researchers looked at 1,450 workers’ compensation patients who had diagnosis of disc herniation, radiculopathy, or disc degeneration.  Half of the patients had fusion surgery in hopes of curing low back pain.  The other half had no surgery, even though they had comparable diagnoses.  The results were as follows:

  • Two year after fusion surgery, 26 percent of union cases had returned to work, while 67 percent of nonsurgical controls had returned to work within town years from date of injury
  • The re-operation rate was 27 percent for surgical patients
  • Of the lumbar fusion subjects, 36 percent had complications
  • Permanent disability rates were 11 percent for surgery case and 2 percent for nonoperative controls
  • For lumbar fusion subjects, daily opioid use increased 41 percent after surgery, with 76 percent of cases continuing opioid use after surgery
  • Total number of days off work was more prolonged for surgical cases compared to nonoperative controls, 1140 and 316 days, respectively

From the study’s conclusion:  “Lumbar fusion for the diagnoses of disc degeneration, disc herniation, and/or radiculopathy in a WC setting is associated with significant increase in disability, opiate use, prolonged work loss, and poor RTW(Return to Work) status.”

Source: Long-term Outcomes of Lumbar Fusion Among Workers’ Compensation Subjects: An Historical Cohort Study, Spine: 15 February 2011-Vol 36-Issue 4-p 313-3

(MAC Journal-May/June 2012)