Does Neck Surgery Improve Long-Term Outcomes?

How many times have you heard, “I have a pinched nerve in my neck and have to have surgery.”? Though there certainly are cases where surgical intervention is required, surgery should ONLY be considered after ALL non-surgical treatment approaches have first been tried (and failed). It is alarming how many cases of cervical radiculopathy (i.e., “pinched nerve”) end up being surgically treated with NO trial of non-surgical care. Hence, the focus of this month’s article will look at research (“MEDICAL EVIDENCE”) that clearly states neck surgery DOES NOT improve the long-term outcomes of patients with chronic neck pain.

Chronic neck pain (CNP) is, by definition, neck pain that has been present for a minimum of three months. This category of neck pain is very well represented, as many neck pain sufferers have had neck pain, “…for years” or at least longer than three months. Depending on the intensity of pain and it’s effect on daily function, many patients with CNP often ask their primary care provider, “…is there anything surgically that can be done?” The desire for a “quick fix” is often the focus of those suffering with neck pain. Unfortunately, according to recent studies, there may not be a “quick fix” or at least surgery is NOT the answer. The December 2012 issue of The European Spine Journal reports that spine surgery did NOT improve outcomes for patients with CNP. Moreover, they pointed to other studies that showed some VERY STRONG REASONS NOT to have spine surgery unless everything else has failed. One of the reasons was a higher hospital readmission rate after spine surgery. Another reported that most studies on surgical vs. conservative [non-surgical] care showed a high risk of bias, suggesting the research on surgical intervention was biased in the research approach used. They further reported, “The benefit of surgery over conservative care is not clearly demonstrated.” It is important to point out that the research analyzed studies that included patients with and without radiculopathy (radiating arm pain from a pinched nerve), and myelopathy (those with pinching of the spinal cord creating pain, numbness, weakness in the legs, and/or bowel / bladder dysfunction).

In February of 2008, the Neck Pain Task Force published overwhelming evidence that research supports the use of cervical spinal manipulation in the treatment of both acute and chronic neck pain with or without radiculopathy. Bronfort published similar findings in 2010 in a large UK-based study that looked at the published evidence supporting different types of treatment for various conditions. They found cervical spinal manipulation was effective for neck pain of ANY duration (acute or chronic). Chiropractic utilizes manipulation, manual traction, mobilization, muscle release techniques, home cervical traction, exercise, as well as a multitude of physiotherapy modalities when managing patients with CNP. Given the overwhelming research evidence that surgical intervention for CNP is NOT any better than non-surgical care, has a higher likelihood of negative side-effects, and has a long post-surgical recovery time, it’s clear that anyone suffering from CNP should try chiropractic care FIRST.