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Management of Back Pain in Patients with Previous Back Surgery

      Abstract

      The 80,000 or so patients a year who continue to have chronic, disabling back pain after one or more spinal surgeries are said to have failed back surgery syndrome. There are no controlled studies to guide physicians in the management of these patients. Six anatomical abnormalities of the spine most commonly result in back surgery, and 7 undesirable outcomes lead to failed back surgery syndrome. On the basis of 5 large retrospective studies and our clinical experience, we suggest a systematic approach to these patients. This approach is focused on determination of the specific anatomical abnormality responsible for ongoing symptoms, an abnormality that may or may not be related to the initial abnormality for which surgery was performed. One or more of 5 nonsurgical treatment options may be useful to prevent the need for further surgery, as each subsequent surgery has a lower likelihood of success.

      Keywords

      The number of back surgeries performed to relieve low back pain in the United States rose from 300,413 in 1994 to 392,948 in 2000.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      Lumbar fusion surgery increased 220% from 1990 to 2001.
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Reoperation rates following lumbar spine surgery and the influence of spinal fusion procedures.
      Best estimates suggest that although 60% or more of initial back surgeries have a successful outcome, many are not successful.
      • Weir B.K.
      • Jacobs G.A.
      Reoperation rate following lumbar discectomy An analysis of 662 lumbar discectomies.
      • Law J.D.
      • Lehman R.A.
      • Kirsch W.M.
      Reoperation after lumbar intervertebral disc surgery.
      In a retrospective study of 24,882 patients who underwent spinal surgery in Washington State from 1990-1993, 19% required reoperation for pain or complications of surgery over the ensuing 11 years.
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Are lumbar spine reoperation rates falling with greater use of fusion surgery and new surgical technology?.
      Patients who have chronic, disabling lower back pain after one or more spinal surgeries are said to have failed back surgery syndrome.
      • North R.B.
      • Campbell J.N.
      • James C.S.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: 5-year follow-up in 102 patients undergoing repeated operation.
      If these estimates are correct, there may be over 80,000 “failed” back surgeries per year. Success rates fall to around 30% after a second back surgery, 15% after the third, and to 5% after the fourth surgery.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      Often, internists are asked for advice by these challenging patients but are unfamiliar with the conditions leading to back surgery, the types of back surgery, and the best approaches to diagnosis and management. We review these areas in this article.
      • Internists are generally unfamiliar with the conditions for which back surgery is performed or how to deal with patients with failed back surgery.
      • Best estimates suggest that 40% of back surgery for low back pain is unsuccessful, and these patients often gravitate to internists.
      • An understanding of the 6 spinal abnormalities most commonly associated with failed back surgery syndrome is required for adequate clinical management.

      Anatomical Abnormalities of the Back for Which Initial Back Surgery is Performed

      Spinal surgery is optimally performed only when the pain and symptoms correlate with a corresponding anatomic abnormality to yield the best outcomes (Figure 1). Six commonly encountered spinal abnormalities for which spinal surgery is performed are listed in Table 1.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Figure 1Anatomical abnormalities of the spine for which back surgery is frequently performed. The upper figure is a lateral representation of the spine with a normal intervertebral disc and a normal articulation of the inferior articular process of L3 and the superior articular process of L4 to form the L3-L4 facet joint. There is anterior displacement of L4, a condition called spondylolisthesis, and degeneration of the L4-L5 facet joint. Spondylolisthesis may cause no symptoms or entrapment of the spinal nerve, causing sciatica, while osteoarthritis of a facet joint can cause no symptoms or chronic low back pain, sometimes accompanied by spinal stenosis (lower figure). With weakening of the annulus fibrosus and herniation of an intervertebral disc (lower figure) sciatica, spinal stenosis and chronic low back may occur. Reproduced from Deyo RA. Back surgery—who needs it? N Engl J Med. 2007;356(22):2240.
      • Deyo R.A.
      Back surgery—who needs it?.
      Used with permission.
      Table 1Anatomical Abnormalities Leading to Back Pain and Usual Surgical Interventions
      AbnormalitySurgical Procedure
      Disc herniation
      A condition resulting from extrusion of the nucleus pulposus from the fibrous cover of the disc. This is associated with parethesias relieved by lying down.
      Discectomy, laminotomy, laminectomy, foraminotomy
      Spinal stenosis
      A condition in which the vertebral canal is narrowed, causing pain that radiates down the back to the buttocks, thighs, and lower legs (sciatica). This is often accompanied by limping and leg pain and made worse with extension (standing) and better by flexion (sitting).
      Decompression, laminectomy, foraminotomy
      Degenerative disc diseaseFusion with instrumentation
      Instrumentation means the use of hardware such as screws, rods or plates. The function of the instrumentation is to provide temporary stability until fusion and bone healing is complete.
      Spondylolisthesis
      A condition where one of the vertebrae of the lower spine slips forward in relation to the other. This can cause no symptoms or chronic low back pain and sciatica.
      Decompression and fusion with instrumentation
      Degenerative scoliosisDecompression and fusion with instrumentation
      Spinal instability
      Can occur from instability of an adjacent segment, deformity, spondylolisthesis, or trauma.
      Fusion with instrumentation
      low asterisk A condition resulting from extrusion of the nucleus pulposus from the fibrous cover of the disc. This is associated with parethesias relieved by lying down.
      A condition in which the vertebral canal is narrowed, causing pain that radiates down the back to the buttocks, thighs, and lower legs (sciatica). This is often accompanied by limping and leg pain and made worse with extension (standing) and better by flexion (sitting).
      A condition where one of the vertebrae of the lower spine slips forward in relation to the other. This can cause no symptoms or chronic low back pain and sciatica.
      § Can occur from instability of an adjacent segment, deformity, spondylolisthesis, or trauma.
      Instrumentation means the use of hardware such as screws, rods or plates. The function of the instrumentation is to provide temporary stability until fusion and bone healing is complete.

      Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

      Data on the causes of failed back surgery are limited. Among orthopedists, there is consensus that the timing of recurrent symptoms provides information helpful in diagnosis.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      Immediately after surgery, failure to achieve relief of symptoms or a continuation of preoperative symptoms has been attributed to an initial wrong diagnosis, technical error, or poor patient selection because of psychosocial factors. Temporary relief after surgery followed by pain recurrence within a few weeks of surgery suggests infection. When pain occurs months after surgery, reherniation, battered root syndrome (inflammation of the nerve root as a result of surgical manipulation), epidural fibrosis, or arachnoiditis are suspected. Failures after several years may be caused by loss of spinal instability or spinal stenosis, either at the previous surgical site or at an adjacent level. Loss of stability can result from excessive bone removal during decompression surgery. For instance, resection of 50% or more of the facet joint affects the stability of the spine.
      • Zdeblick T.A.
      • Zou D.
      • Warden K.E.
      • et al.
      Cervical stability after foraminotomy A biomechanical in vitro analysis.
      Spinal instability also can occur at an adjacent level after fusion surgery, due to increased motion as the adjacent segments compensating for the loss of motion at the fused segment. Spinal instability increased from 12% after one operation to 50% after 4 or more revision surgeries in one retrospective study.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      Risk factors for reoperation are spinal fusion with the surgery, age <60 years, and workers’ compensation claims.
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Are lumbar spine reoperation rates falling with greater use of fusion surgery and new surgical technology?.
      Some authors have suggested that the cause of ongoing back pain in patients with failed back surgery syndrome may be possible to diagnose in as many as 90% of patients
      • Schofferman J.
      • Reynolds J.
      • Herzog R.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery: etiology and diagnostic evaluation.
      (Table 2).
      Table 2Most Common Causes of Failed Back Surgery
      Schofferman et al.9
      Foraminal stenosis25%-29%
      Symptomatic degenerative disc disease20%-22%
      Pseudoarthrosis (failure of fusion)14%
      Neuropathic pain10%
      Recurrent disc herniation7%-12%
      Facet joint pain3%
      Sacroiliac joint pain2%
      low asterisk Schofferman et al.
      • Schofferman J.
      • Reynolds J.
      • Herzog R.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery: etiology and diagnostic evaluation.

      Approach to a Patient with Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

      After extensive review of the English literature, we found that there are no controlled studies to guide the physician in the management of failed back surgery syndrome, and retrospective data are limited as well (Table 3). Therefore, the recommendations to follow are based on experience and consensus and require further study. Chronic back pain after surgery mandates an in-depth investigation of the spine, and alarm symptoms suggest the need for immediate consultation with a spine surgeon (Table 4).
      Table 3Studies of Salvage Surgery for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome
      CitationType of Study
      North et al, 1991
      • North R.B.
      • Campbell J.N.
      • James C.S.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: 5-year follow-up in 102 patients undergoing repeated operation.
      Mean 5-year retrospective follow-up of 102 patients undergoing repeat back surgery
      Waddell et al, 1979
      • Waddell G.
      • Kummel E.G.
      • Lotto W.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery and repeat surgery following industrial injuries.
      Retrospective follow-up of 179 patients at 1-2 years after repeat back surgery
      Kim et al, 1992
      • Kim S.S.
      • Michelsen C.B.
      Revision surgery for failed back surgery syndrome.
      Retrospective review at 2 years of 50 patients who had 92 revision back surgeries
      Fritsch et al, 1996
      • Fritsch E.W.
      • Heisel J.
      • Rupp S.
      The failed back surgery syndrome: reasons, intraoperative findings, and long-term results: a report of 182 operative treatments.
      Retrospective review of 136 patients and 182 revision surgeries 2-28 years follow-up after discectomy
      Martin et al, 2007
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Reoperation rates following lumbar spine surgery and the influence of spinal fusion procedures.
      Retrospective cohort study of 50,091 patients who underwent spine surgery with 11 years follow-up
      Table 4Alarm Signs in Patients with Previous Back Surgery Indicating the Need to Consult a Spine Surgeon
      Uncontrolled pain with analgesics
      Waking up at night due to pain
      Weakness, shooting pain, and parasthesias in the lower extremities
      Constitutional symptoms such as fever, vomiting or unplanned weight loss
      Loss of bowel or bladder control often associated with numbness in the perianal and groin areas
      Suggests Cauda Equina Syndrome. The lumbosacral nerve roots are under pressure and symptoms may be irreversible if not decompressed early.
      low asterisk Suggests Cauda Equina Syndrome. The lumbosacral nerve roots are under pressure and symptoms may be irreversible if not decompressed early.

      Physical Examination

      The approach to the patient starts with a history and physical examination, looking for clues to the origin of persistent back pain and evidence of neurological involvement such as muscle weakness, parasthesias, or radicular pain and numbness in the lower extremities. Tension on a nerve root produced by stretching the root over an offending structure such as a herniated disc results in tension signs. The femoral stretch test, straight leg-raising test, and Lasagne sign are used to elicit these findings. Sensory deficits are determined by comparing the patient’s perception of light touch and pin prick in both legs. Muscle weakness is detected by resistance testing of each muscle group individually as compared with the same muscle group in the contralateral leg. The lumbar spine is checked for range of motion, paravertebral muscle spasm, localized points of tenderness and step-offs, soft tissue indentation along the midline of the spine caused by high-grade spondylolisthesis. Other causes of back pain such as cancer in the retroperitoneum and pelvis, aortic aneurysm, hip arthritis, or myofascial syndromes can mimic chronic low back pain and should always be kept in the differential diagnosis.

      Imaging

      Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT)/myelograms are required in the diagnosis of back pain with neurogenic symptoms. The CT scan is most effective in demonstrating the bony anatomy and, in combination with a myelogram, demonstrates the neural anatomy in relationship to the bony structures. Plain radiograph alone misses spinal stenosis and many soft tissue conditions. Spinal stenosis can best be quantified by MRI, as the condition of the disc and the degree of disc degeneration also can be determined. MRI also is superior to CT scan/myelogram in the detection of stenosis or other pathology in the spinal foramen or extraforaminal area, as the dye of the myelogram and the cerebrospinal fluid does not extend into the spinal foramen. The CT myelogram is useful when MRI cannot be obtained because of a pacemaker, previous brain surgery with clips, or the presence of hardware from previous lumbar spine surgery.

      Invasive Diagnostic Procedures

      Nerve root blocks with local anesthetics or epidural steroid injections can relieve pain and serve as diagnostic tests to determine whether surgery will be of benefit and to identify the levels in the spine that require surgery. Nerve root blocks have been among those found effective in pain relief and have been included in the evidence-based practice guidelines for the management of chronic spinal pain.
      • Boswell M.V.
      • Trescot A.M.
      • Datta S.
      • et al.
      Interventional techniques: evidence-based practice guidelines in the management of chronic spinal pain.
      For example, if a patient has radicular leg pain and the MRI scan demonstrates entrapment of more than one nerve, nerve roots may be individually injected with a local anesthetic with or without steroid. The source of the pain and the level for any future surgery required can thus be determined. Posterior spinal joint (facet) blocks and blocks of the medial branch nerves (nerves supplying sensation to the facet capsules) also may relieve pain originating from an arthritic facet. Medial branch blocks provide pain relief by desensitizing the capsule of the respective facet joints.

      Myofascial Pain Syndromes in Patients with Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

      Myofascial pain syndromes are poorly understood chronic pain syndromes, variously termed nonarticular rheumatism, fibromyalgia, and soft tissue rheumatism, and are invariably associated with disorders of sleep. Diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia are based on the presence of tender points at specific locations, including those in the back.
      • Bennett R.M.
      The rational management of fibromyalgia patients.
      The prevalence of these syndromes in failed back surgery syndrome is unclear, although they are common in our experience. If present, symptoms seem best approached by evaluation and treatment of sleep disorders if present, warm-water-based exercise programs, and antidepressants. Other factors that can contribute to musculoskeletal back pain include poor posture, pes planus, leg length differences, reduced strength of the muscles in the lower torso, lack of oxygen in the back tissues caused by smoking, and psychosocial factors. Consultation with a rheumatologist can be helpful in the management of these patients.

      Non-Surgical Treatment Modalities for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

      Oral Pain Medications

      All patients with recurrent back pain should be offered a regimen of pain management for chronic and breakthrough pain plus physical therapy (Table 5). Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been convincingly shown to be more effective than placebo. There also are no documented differences in pain control for back pain between NSAIDs, narcotic analgesics, or muscle relaxants. In one study, pain relief from the combination of a NSAID and a muscle relaxant was not different from a NSAID alone in the management of low back pain.
      • van Tulder M.W.
      • Scholten R.J.
      • Koes B.W.
      • et al.
      Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for low back pain: a systematic review within the framework of the Cochrane Collaboration Back Review Group.
      Muscle relaxants have a number of side effects, and their use in the treatment of chronic low back pain is limited. In a meta-analysis, antidepressant treatment was found to be more effective than placebo in reducing pain severity, but not functional status, in chronic back pain.
      • Salerno S.M.
      • Browning R.
      • Jackson J.L.
      The effect of antidepressant treatment on chronic back pain: a meta-analysis.
      If oral regimens are not effective in pain management and surgery is not indicated, contraindicated, or delayed, consultation with a pain management specialist may be useful.
      Table 5Typical Oral Pain Management Regimens for Low Back Pain
      Drugs for Use Each 24-h Period MaintenanceDrugs for Use Every 4-6 h Breakthrough Pain
      Naproxyn sodium 250-500 mg twice a day plus a proton pump inhibitor with or without nortriptyline 25-150 mg/dayCodeine SO4 (30-60 mg) or Hydrocodone (5 to 10 mg) or Oxycodone (5-10 mg)
      Celecoxib 100-200 mg twice a day with or without nortriptyline 25-150 mg

      Physical Therapy

      Physical therapy has been shown to be effective at decreasing pain and improving function in adults with chronic low back pain in several meta-analyses or randomized controlled trials
      • Cairns M.C.
      • Foster N.E.
      • Wright C.
      Randomized controlled trial of specific spinal stabilization exercises and conventional physiotherapy for recurrent low back pain.
      • Hayden J.A.
      • van Tulder M.W.
      • Malmivaara A.
      • et al.
      Exercise therapy for treatment of non-specific low back pain.
      (Table 6). The Philadelphia Panel Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines on Selected Rehabilitation for Low Back Pain found rehabilitation to be beneficial for chronic, subacute, and postsurgery low back pain.
      Philadelphia Panel
      Philadelphia Panel evidence-based clinical practice guidelines on selected rehabilitation interventions for low back pain.
      On the other hand, one randomized clinical trial on low back pain that did not include patients with failed back surgery syndrome, found only limited benefit for either physical therapy or chiropractic manipulation, and showed no difference between those therapies and use of an educational booklet on low back pain management.
      • Cherkin D.C.
      • Deyo R.A.
      • Battie M.
      • et al.
      A comparison of physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, and provision of an educational booklet for the treatment of patients with low back pain.
      Table 6Typical Physical Therapy Prescription for Chronic Low Back Pain
      ProblemPhysical Therapy Program
      Herniated nucleus pulposusCore strengthening (trunk muscle strengthening, including isometric abdominal and paravertebral muscles and back extensors) with McKenzie isometric program
      Rainville et al.19
      Spinal stenosisStrengthening of abdominal muscles with Williams’ exercises
      Gardner-Morse and Stokes.20
      Degenerative disc diseaseCore strengthening and back extensor strengthening with McKenzie isometric program
      Postoperative programCore strengthening with McKenzie isometric program
      low asterisk Rainville et al.
      • Rainville J.
      • Hartigan C.
      • Martinez E.
      • et al.
      Exercise as a treatment for chronic low back pain.
      Gardner-Morse and Stokes.
      • Gardner-Morse M.G.
      • Stokes I.A.
      The effects of abdominal muscle coactivation on lumbar spine stability.
      If patients still experience incapacitating symptoms after physical therapy, epidural steroid injections (see below) may be considered. After 6 months of pain management and physical therapy, other treatments should be considered.

      Other Nonsurgical Treatments

      Other options for treatment of failed back surgery syndrome include spinal cord stimulation, radiofrequency neurolysis, and rehabilitation programs. There are no controlled studies on the effectiveness of these treatments in failed back surgery syndrome.
      Spinal cord stimulation has a role in the management of failed back surgery syndrome.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      • Boswell M.V.
      • Trescot A.M.
      • Datta S.
      • et al.
      Interventional techniques: evidence-based practice guidelines in the management of chronic spinal pain.
      • Hayden J.A.
      • van Tulder M.W.
      • Malmivaara A.
      • et al.
      Exercise therapy for treatment of non-specific low back pain.
      • North R.B.
      • Ewend M.G.
      • Lawton M.T.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: 5-year follow-up after spinal cord stimulator implantation.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      Neurostimulation for chronic neuropathic back pain in failed back surgery syndrome.
      • Taylor R.S.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      • Buchser E.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic back and leg pain and failed back surgery syndrome: a systematic review and analysis of prognostic factors.
      • North R.B.
      • Wetzel F.T.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic pain of spinal origin: a valuable long-term solution.
      After implantation, the spinal cord stimulator generates an electric impulse near the dorsal surface of the spinal cord and induces a tingling sensation that alters the perception of pain by the patient.
      • Taylor R.S.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      • Buchser E.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic back and leg pain and failed back surgery syndrome: a systematic review and analysis of prognostic factors.
      • North R.B.
      • Wetzel F.T.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic pain of spinal origin: a valuable long-term solution.
      In one retrospective study of patients with failed back surgery syndrome, spinal cord stimulation was more effective than re-operation at 3 years of follow-up.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      • North R.B.
      • Wetzel F.T.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic pain of spinal origin: a valuable long-term solution.
      However, 34% of patients who received a spinal cord stimulator had complications such as infections and lead wire or electrode dysfunction. In a systematic review of patients with failed back surgery syndrome, spinal cord stimulators reduced pain 50% or more in 37.5% of patients, compared with 11.5% of patients undergoing revision surgery.
      • Taylor R.S.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      • Buchser E.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic back and leg pain and failed back surgery syndrome: a systematic review and analysis of prognostic factors.
      Other studies have suggested that spinal cord stimulators provide sustained, long-term reduction in pain levels at 50% or more in over 60% of patients.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      Neurostimulation for chronic neuropathic back pain in failed back surgery syndrome.
      Radiofrequency neurolysis temporarily destroys spinal nerves by application of high energy to the nerve in the form of heat.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      • Niemisto L.
      • Kalso E.
      • Malmivaara A.
      • et al.
      Radiofrequency denervation for neck and back pain A systematic review of randomized controlled trials.
      Radiofrequency neurolysis has been shown to reduce pain lasting as long as 3 years, however, there are no studies comparing this procedure to re-operation.
      • Hazard R.G.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: surgical and nonsurgical approaches.
      Activities of daily living and work status outcomes did not differ.
      The role of rehabilitation in failed back surgery syndrome also has been supported by clinical trials.
      • Guzman J.
      • Esmail R.
      • Karjalainen K.
      • et al.
      Multidisciplinary rehabilitation for chronic low back pain: systematic review.
      • Ostelo R.W.
      • de Vet H.C.
      • Waddell G.
      • et al.
      Rehabilitation following first-time lumbar disc surgery: a systematic review within the framework of the Cochrane collaboration.
      An intensive exercise program seems effective in improving functional status and early return to work.
      • Ostelo R.W.
      • de Vet H.C.
      • Waddell G.
      • et al.
      Rehabilitation following first-time lumbar disc surgery: a systematic review within the framework of the Cochrane collaboration.
      A systematic review suggested that an intensive, multidisciplinary rehabilitation program involving physical therapists also improved function and reduced pain.
      • Guzman J.
      • Esmail R.
      • Karjalainen K.
      • et al.
      Multidisciplinary rehabilitation for chronic low back pain: systematic review.
      The authors concluded that rehabilitation for patients with failed back surgery syndrome must be intensive, multidisciplinary, involve pain management, psychological support, exercise, and occupational therapy, and be focused on return to work. A meta-analysis found that exercise therapy is effective at decreasing pain and improving function in adults with chronic low back pain.
      • Hayden J.A.
      • van Tulder M.W.
      • Malmivaara A.
      • et al.
      Exercise therapy for treatment of non-specific low back pain.

      Revision Surgery for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

      Three uncontrolled retrospective case review series have addressed the etiology and outcomes of revision surgery for failed back surgery syndrome.
      • North R.B.
      • Campbell J.N.
      • James C.S.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: 5-year follow-up in 102 patients undergoing repeated operation.
      • Waddell G.
      • Kummel E.G.
      • Lotto W.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery and repeat surgery following industrial injuries.
      • Fritsch E.W.
      • Heisel J.
      • Rupp S.
      The failed back surgery syndrome: reasons, intraoperative findings, and long-term results: a report of 182 operative treatments.
      The average number of patients undergoing revision surgery ranged from 102 to 182, with an average follow-up of 1-28 years. The percentages of “good” or “successful” outcomes ranged from 22% to 80%. Outcomes varied greatly, depending on the length of follow-up. One study demonstrated a decrease in the successful outcome from 80% at 2 years to 22% at 28 years,
      • Taylor R.S.
      • Van Buyten J.P.
      • Buchser E.
      Spinal cord stimulation for chronic back and leg pain and failed back surgery syndrome: a systematic review and analysis of prognostic factors.
      while the other 2 studies reported success rates of 34% and 40%, respectively, after an average of 2 years.
      • North R.B.
      • Campbell J.N.
      • James C.S.
      • et al.
      Failed back surgery syndrome: 5-year follow-up in 102 patients undergoing repeated operation.
      • Waddell G.
      • Kummel E.G.
      • Lotto W.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery and repeat surgery following industrial injuries.
      The decision to perform additional back surgery is based on the failure to relieve back pain with nonsurgical techniques, the development of new neurologic findings, an appropriate diagnosis of the cause of ongoing symptoms, the patient’s understanding of the risks and benefits of further surgery, and the surgeon’s willingness to perform further surgery on the patient (Table 7). If the decision to perform surgery is made, we feel the type of surgery should be decided upon jointly by the surgeon and the patient so that realistic expectations are completely understood.
      • Ragab A.A.
      Validity of self-assessment outcome questionnaires: patient-physician discrepancy in outcome interpretation.
      Lumbar spinal fusion is usually the procedure performed (Figure 2). However, studies have shown that the incidence of reoperation after lumbar spine surgery is 19% within 11 years and that the incidence of reoperation was higher following fusion than decompression alone (21.5% vs 18.8%, respectively).
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Reoperation rates following lumbar spine surgery and the influence of spinal fusion procedures.
      Also, the complication rates following fusion surgery are higher than those following decompression surgeries.
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Reoperation rates following lumbar spine surgery and the influence of spinal fusion procedures.
      • Martin B.I.
      • Mirza S.K.
      • Comstock B.A.
      • et al.
      Are lumbar spine reoperation rates falling with greater use of fusion surgery and new surgical technology?.
      • Malter A.D.
      • McNeney B.
      • Loeser J.D.
      • Deyo R.A.
      5-year reoperation rates after different types of lumbar spine surgery.
      Table 7Indications for Repeat Surgery for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome
      Failure to relieve pain that is a result of a specific abnormal finding on a radiographic study
      Failure to perform activities of daily living or to obtain gainful employment in the presence of a specific structural abnormality
      Significant progressive neurologic deficits
      Loss of bowel or bladder control
      Failure of fixation (hardware) device
      Infection
      Figure thumbnail gr2
      Figure 2Spinal fusion is performed to relieve pain and other neurologic symptoms of spondylolisthesis. When spondylolisthesis is present, the entrapped nerves are decompressed by laminectomy before the placement of bone-grafts between transverse processes of adjacent verterbrae and between the posterior elements of the vertebrae. If there is disc herniation, the protruding disc segment is removed at the same time. Various metal devices may also be used to stabilize the vertebrae. Reproduced from Deyo RA. Back surgery—who needs it? N Engl J Med. 2007;356(22):2242.
      • Deyo R.A.
      Back surgery—who needs it?.
      Used with permission.
      The overall success rate after reoperation on failed back surgery patients is low and worsens with each additional surgery.
      • Kim S.S.
      • Michelsen C.B.
      Revision surgery for failed back surgery syndrome.
      Patients who have undergone spinal fusion and require a second procedure have worse clinical and functional results than patients who did not undergo fusion.
      • Waddell G.
      • Kummel E.G.
      • Lotto W.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery and repeat surgery following industrial injuries.
      In one study, the overall rate of failure of repair of pseudoarthrosis, defined by a need for another operation for continued functional disability, was 30% for fusion patients and 37.7% for nonfusion patients.
      • Frymoyer J.W.
      • Matteri R.E.
      • Hanley E.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery requiring second operation A long-term follow-up study.
      Repair also infrequently led to improvement in pain. Female sex, history of disability, compensation or pending litigation, multiple previous surgeries, perineural scarring, history of psychosocial problems, pseudoarthrosis, and lack of preoperative objective findings have been associated with a poor outcome.
      • Kim S.S.
      • Michelsen C.B.
      Revision surgery for failed back surgery syndrome.
      Several studies have reported a correlation between good clinical outcome and successful fusion.
      • Kim S.S.
      • Michelsen C.B.
      Revision surgery for failed back surgery syndrome.
      • Frymoyer J.W.
      • Matteri R.E.
      • Hanley E.N.
      • et al.
      Failed lumbar disc surgery requiring second operation A long-term follow-up study.
      • Kornblum M.B.
      • Fischgrund J.S.
      • Herkowitz H.N.
      • et al.
      Degenerative lumbar spondylolisthesis with spinal stenosis: a prospective long-term study comparing fusion and pseudarthrosis.

      Conclusion

      There are no prospective controlled studies to guide the physician in the comprehensive management of patients with failed back surgery syndrome, although a few randomized controlled trials address modalities in the symptomatic treatment of failed back surgery syndrome.
      • Boswell M.V.
      • Trescot A.M.
      • Datta S.
      • et al.
      Interventional techniques: evidence-based practice guidelines in the management of chronic spinal pain.
      • Cairns M.C.
      • Foster N.E.
      • Wright C.
      Randomized controlled trial of specific spinal stabilization exercises and conventional physiotherapy for recurrent low back pain.
      • Niemisto L.
      • Kalso E.
      • Malmivaara A.
      • et al.
      Radiofrequency denervation for neck and back pain A systematic review of randomized controlled trials.
      We suggest a standardized approach based on a collaboration among a primary care physician, back surgeon, physical therapist, psychiatrist and, if required, a pain management specialist in the management of these patients (Figure 3).
      Figure thumbnail gr3
      Figure 3Algorithm for management of failed back surgery syndrome.

      Acknowledgment

      The authors appreciate the editorial assistance of Leigh Wright in the preparation of this manuscript.

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