Common Surgery for Neck Pain Unproven

From the WebMD Archives

April 3, 2002 -- The benefits from surgery for one of most common causes of neck pain may not be worth the risks for many people. A new study shows surgery is no better than other, less risky treatments for those with symptoms caused by degeneration of the vertebrae in the neck, a condition known as cervical spondylosis.

Researchers say more than half of the population has evidence of the condition, but most people never develop symptoms. However, in about 10%-15% of the population, cervical spondylosis can cause pressure to build on either the spine itself or the major nerves off the spine. This compression leads to symptoms such as neck pain and stiffness and/or numbness and weakness in the arms and legs.

The study, published in the April 1 issue of Spine, looked at more than 13,000 studies evaluating the treatment and found only two that met generally accepted scientific criteria.

Both of those studies showed that there was some early benefit from surgery in reducing pain, weakness, and numbness. But in the long term, there was no significant difference in results between people who received surgery compared with those who had nonsurgical treatments.

Although the effectiveness of spine surgery to relieve the compression caused by cervical spondylosis may be questionable, researchers say the risks associated with it are small but do exist. Complications are very rare but can include paralysis or even death.

In light of the small amount of scientific research on the topic, the study authors suggest that large medical trials are needed to provide clear evidence about the benefits from surgery for cervical spondylosis. Until then, "It is not clear whether the short-term risks of surgery are offset by any long-term benefits," write the authors.