A descriptive study of the utilization of physical therapy for postoperative rehabilitation in patients undergoing surgery for lumbar radiculopathy
STUDY DESIGN A prospective randomized controlled trial of exercise therapy in patients who underwent microdiscectomy for prolapsed lumbar intervertebral disc. Results of a pilot study are presented. OBJECTIVE To determine the effects of a postoperative exercise program on pain, disability, psychological status, and spinal function. SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA Microdiscectomy is often used successfully to treat prolapsed lumbar intervertebral disc. However, some patients do not have a good outcome and many continue to have low back pain. The reasons for this are unclear but impairment of back muscle function due to months of inactivity before surgery may be a contributing factor. A postoperative exercise program may improve outcome in such patients. METHODS Twenty patients who underwent lumbar microdiscectomy were randomized into EXERCISE and CONTROL groups. After surgery, all patients received normal postoperative care that included advice from a physiotherapist about exercise and a return to normal activities. Six weeks after surgery, patients in the EXERCISE group undertook a 4-week exercise program that concentrated on improving strength and endurance of the back and abdominal muscles and mobility of the spine and hips. Assessments of spinal function were performed in all patients during the week before surgery and at 6, 10, 26, and 52 weeks after. The assessment included measures of posture, hip and lumbar mobility, back muscle endurance capacity and electromyographic measures of back muscle fatigue. On each occasion, patients completed questionnaires inquiring about pain, disability and psychological status. RESULTS Surgery improved pain, disability, back muscle endurance capacity and hip and lumbar mobility in both groups of patients. After the exercise program, the EXERCISE group showed further improvements in these measures and also in electromyographic measures of back muscle fatigability. All these improvements were maintained 12 months after surgery. The only further improvement showed by the CONTROL group between 6 and 52 weeks was an increase in back muscle endurance capacity. CONCLUSION A 4-week postoperative exercise program can improve pain, disability, and spinal function inpatients who undergo microdiscectomy. [Key words: electromyogram median frequency, exercise therapy, intervertebral disc prolapse, microdiscectomy, randomized controlled trial, spinal function.