Global Spine J 2014; 04(04): 279-286
DOI: 10.1055/s-0034-1387807
Review Article
Georg Thieme Verlag KG Stuttgart · New York

Optimal Duration of Conservative Management Prior to Surgery for Cervical and Lumbar Radiculopathy: A Literature Review

Vincent J. Alentado1, 2, Daniel Lubelski1, 3, Michael P. Steinmetz2, 4, Edward C. Benzel1, 3, Thomas E. Mroz1, 3
  • 1Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health, Departments of Orthopaedic and Neurological Surgery, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio, United States
  • 2Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio, United States
  • 3Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio, United States
  • 4Department of Neurosciences, MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio, United States
Further Information

Publication History

25 April 2014

23 June 2014

Publication Date:
28 August 2014 (eFirst)


Study Design Literature review.

Objective Since the 1970s, spine surgeons have commonly required 6 weeks of failed conservative treatment prior to considering surgical intervention for various spinal pathologies. It is unclear, however, if this standard has been validated in the literature. The authors review the natural history, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness studies relating to the current standard of 6 weeks of nonoperative care prior to surgery for patients with spinal pathologies.

Methods A systematic Medline search from 1953 to 2013 was performed to identify natural history, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness studies relating to the optimal period of conservative management prior to surgical intervention for both cervical and lumbar radiculopathy. Demographic information, operative indications, and clinical outcomes are reviewed for each study.

Results A total of 5,719 studies were identified; of these, 13 studies were selected for inclusion. Natural history studies demonstrated that 88% of patients with cervical radiculopathy and 70% of patients with lumbar radiculopathy showed improvement within 4 weeks following onset of symptoms. Outcomes and cost-effectiveness studies supported surgical intervention within 8 weeks of symptom onset for both cervical and lumbar radiculopathy.

Conclusions There are limited studies supporting any optimal duration of conservative treatment prior to surgery for cervical and lumbar radiculopathy. Therefore, evidence-based conclusions cannot be made. Based on the available literature, we suggest that an optimal timing for surgery following cervical radiculopathy is within 8 weeks of onset of symptoms. A shorter period of 4 weeks may be appropriate based on natural history studies. Additionally, we found that optimal timing for surgery following lumbar radiculopathy is between 4 and 8 weeks. A prospective study is needed to explicitly identify the optimal duration of conservative therapy prior to surgery so that costs may be reduced and patient outcomes improved.