Transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis: a systematic review
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Nellensteijn, J., Ostelo, R., Bartels, R. et al. Eur Spine J (2010) 19: 879. doi:10.1007/s00586-009-1272-6
- 1.1k Downloads
Transforaminal endoscopic techniques have become increasingly popular in surgery of patients with lumbar stenosis. The literature has not yet been systematically reviewed. A comprehensive systematic literature review up to November 2009 to assess the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery in patients with symptomatic lumbar stenosis was made. Two reviewers independently checked all retrieved titles and abstracts and relevant full text articles for inclusion criteria. Included articles were assessed for quality, and relevant data, including outcomes, were extracted by two reviewers independently. No randomized controlled trials were identified, but seven observational studies. The studies were of poor methodological quality and heterogeneous regarding patient selection, indications, operation techniques, follow-up period and outcome measures. Overall, 69–83% reported the outcome as satisfactory and a complication rate of 0–8.3%. The reported re-operation rate varied from 0 to 20%. At present, there is no valid evidence from randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis. Randomized controlled trials comparing transforaminal endoscopic surgery with other surgical techniques are direly needed.
KeywordsLumbar Foraminal Lateral recess stenosis Transforaminal Endoscopic surgery Minimally invasive surgery Systematic review
Already in 1950, Verbiest  described the syndrome associated with narrowing of the lumbar spinal canal. Individuals with lumbar spinal stenosis frequently report clinical symptoms such as neurogenic claudication or sciatica with or without low back pain. Lumbar spinal stenosis may occur as a result of degenerative, developmental or congenital disorder. The degenerative type often originates due to arthritic changes of the intervertebral disc, facet joints or ligaments surrounding the vertebral canal or due to vertebral slippage (spondylolisthesis). Degenerative stenosis most often occurs in older individuals, especially in those 50–60 years of age [2, 3, 4]. Developmental spinal stenosis is a condition in which the narrow spinal canal is caused by growth disturbance of the posterior elements in the spinal canal . Patients with the congenital type usually complain early in life. Their stenosis is a result of congenitally anatomic malformation [2, 4]. Controversy exists with regard to clinical symptomatology, radiological diagnosis and choice of treatment. Patients are usually first managed with conservative therapies, such as physical therapy, education and NSAIDs [6, 7].
Also weight loss may result in relief of symptoms . Failure of conservative treatment is an indication for considering surgical intervention. Open decompression laminotomy via a posterior approach is the most widely performed surgical procedure for decompression of radiculopathy caused by lumbar stenosis. This approach involves stripping of the paraspinal muscles and resection of the lamina or medial pars of the facet joint. The posterolateral endoscopic approach was originally developed for the removal of the herniated lumbar discs. Kambin and Gellmann in 1973 in the United States and Hijikata in Japan in 1975 independently developed a non visualized, posterolateral percutaneous central nucleotomy for the resection and evacuation of nuclear tissue via a posterolateral approach [9, 10]. With improvement of endoscopes with working channels for different instruments and variable angled lenses, the procedure became more refined, and consequently, other types of indications were considered for endoscopic surgery. In order to reach the posterior part of the epidural space, the superior articular process of the facet joint is usually the obstacle. Yeung and Knight used a holmium-YAG (Yttrium–Aluminium–Garnet)-laser to achieve tissue ablation of bony and soft tissue, like nuclear and annular fibres, for decompression and enhanced access [10, 11]. To improve intracanal visualization and operative access, the foraminal window is medially extended and widened towards the spinal canal. At present a systematic review evaluating the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis is lacking.
The objective of this systematic review was to assess the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for patients with symptomatic lumbar stenosis. For this systematic review we used the method guidelines as recommended by the Cochrane Back Review Group .
Selection of terms used in our search strategy
Surgical procedures, minimally invasive
Spinal cord compression
Selection of the studies
The search was limited to identifying studies published in English, German and Dutch languages. As only a limited number or no randomized controlled trials were expected, also non-randomized controlled and observational studies (cohort studies, case control studies and retrospective patient series) were included. Furthermore, the following inclusion criteria were used: the population should consist of adult patients with symptomatic lumbar stenosis (at least n = 5); the follow-up period should be at least 6 weeks; and the intervention should be transforaminal endoscopic surgery. Two review authors independently examined all titles and abstracts yielded by the search strategy and reviewed full publications when necessary. Additionally, the reference sections of all included full text studies were inspected.
Outcome measures and instruments
Visual analogue score (VAS)
Oswestry disability index (ODI)
Global perceived effect (GPE)
Return to work
Patient satisfaction, complications, re-operation.
Methodological quality assessment
Criteria list for quality assessment of non-controlled studies
Patient selection/inclusion adequately described?
Dropout rate described?
Was the timing of the outcome assessment similar?
Operationalization of the quality criteria
A: All the basic elements of the study population are adequately described; i.e. demography, type and level of disorder, physical and radiological inclusion and exclusion criteria, pre-operative treatment and duration of disorder
B: Are the number of patients who dropped out adequately described and the reason for dropping out
C: Were outcomes assessed by an independent person who was not involved in selection and treatment of patients
D: All co-interventions in the population during and after the operation are described
E: Timing of outcome assessment should be more or less identical for all intervention groups and individuals and for all important outcome measures
In order to assess the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery the results of all relevant outcome measures were extracted from the original studies. If a study reported several follow-up intervals, the outcome of the longest follow-up moment was used. Because of the heterogeneity between study populations (e.g. different indications for surgery), technical differences of the various endoscopic interventions, and differences in outcome measures, instruments and follow-up moments, statistical pooling was not performed. We present the median and range (min–max) of the results of the individual studies for each outcome measure.
Search and selection
2,513 references were identified. After checking titles and abstracts, a total of 123 full text articles were retrieved. Reviewing the reference lists of these articles resulted in 17 additional references. After scrutinizing all 140 full text papers, a total of seven patient cohort studies were included in this review. No randomized controlled studies were identified.
Type of studies and methodological quality
Study characteristics and outcome
Ahn et al. 
n = 12 ♀7 ♂5
Mean 57 years range 34–88
Unilateral leg pain,
Effective nerve root block
Lateral exit zone stenosis with or without LDH
Cauda equina syndrome
Posterolateral percutaneous endoscopic lumbar foraminotomy (PELF)
Reamer, forceps, laser
Instrumentation not specified
Follow up 13 months (range 6–20)
GPE (MacNab) 33% excellent, 50% good, 8.3% poor
n = 2,000 ♀990 ♂1,010
mean 44 years range 24–92
symptoms of spinal claudication,
LDH and lat stenosis and degenerative changes Spondylolytic spondylolisthesis
Single and multiple level
Cauda equine syndrome, painless motor deficit, tumours
Transforaminal microdecompressive endoscopic assisted discectomy (TF-MEAD)
Karl Stortz instrumentation
Follow up 42 months (range 6–72)
GPE (not specified) 94% excellent or good, 3% poor
Re-operations not specified
Haufe et al. 
n = 64 ♀27 ♂37
median 62 years
intervertebral disc or bony compression
Prior spinal surgery
Level: not specified
Electrocautery and holmium laser, drills
Instrumentation not specified
Follow up 38 months (range 24–45)
GPE (change in VAS) 66%: 75–100% improvement, 16% no improvement or worse outcome
GPE (change in ODI) 59%: 75–100% improvement, 16% no improvement or worse outcome
Complications 3% (dural leak)
Re-operations not specified
Kambin et al. 
n = 40 ♀15 ♂23
mean 44 years range 20–73
Positive tension signs
lateral recess stenosis and LDH
Narrowing intervertebral disc
facet atrophy causing foraminal stenosis
Transforaminal arthroscopic decompression
Follow up 36 months (range 16–74), 5% drop out
GPE (not specified) 82% satisfactory, 18% failure
Return to work 87%
n = 24 ♀12 ♂12
mean 42 years range 22–72
Gr 1–3 istmic listhesis
Spinal abnormality, congenital kyphosis, osteoporosis, postsurgical, posttraumatic, pathological listhesis, infection, degenerative listhesis
Endoscopic laser foraminoplasty (ELF)
YESS, Richard Wolf instrumentation
Follow up 34 months (range 24–46) 0% drop out
Pain leg (VAS) pre-op 54, follow up 17, difference 37 = 69%
Pain back (VAS) pre-op 64, follow up 25, difference 39 = 61%
Pain buttock (VAS) pre-op 60, follow up 18, difference 42 = 70%
GPE (VAS + ODI > 50%) 79%
Functional disability (ODI) pre-op 69, follow up 21, difference 48 = 70%
n = 82
Described as a subgroup of n = 174 ♀68 ♂106
mean 39 years range 16–81
Narrow spinal canal
Previous same level open surgery
Percutaneous nucleotomy with discoscopy
Modified Hijikata instrumentation
Follow up mean 28 months
GPE (Balgrist-nucleotomy score) 69% excellent or good
Complications not specified
n = 20 ♀6 ♂14
Radiculitis and radiculopathy + stenotic canal. No numbness, weakness, pain while walking LDH + canal stenosis
Percutaneous endoscopic discectomy n = 8
Microsurgical discectomy n = 12
Level L3–S1 single
Follow up >24 months
Ahn et al.  (n = 12) described the effectiveness of posterolateral endoscopic lumbar foraminoplasty for foraminal exit stenosis with or without disc herniation of the L5–S1 level. The authors removed part of the hypertrophied superior facet, thickened ligamentum flavum and protruded disc using a bone reamer, endoscopic forceps and laser. Widening the foramen provided decompression and enhanced working space. Most patients were elderly individuals that suffered from severe osteoporosis and some could not tolerate the general anaesthesia required for decompression and fusion surgery. At the 13-month follow-up, the outcomes for general improvement were 83% satisfactory (33% excellent, 50% good), 8.3% fair and 8.3% poor. No complications were reported. The re-operation rate was 8.3%.
Chiu  (n = 2,000) described transforaminal endoscopic laser decompression for a wide variety of indications (i.e. lumbar disc herniations, epidural scarring, lateral recess and foraminal stenosis, and advanced degenerative changes like spondylolytic spondylolisthesis). Outcomes were not reported separately for the various indications. At 42 months of follow-up the results for general improvement were 94% satisfactory outcome (‘excellent’ and ‘good’ were not reported separately). The reported complication rate was 1%. No information was reported on the number of re-operations.
Haufe et al.  described the results of 64 patients who underwent endoscopic laminoforaminoplasty for refractory foraminal stenosis. Patients with stenosis due to either intervertebral disc or bony compression were included and were treated with an identical operative procedure to decompress the foraminal canal. At a median follow-up of 42 months, 59% of patients had at least 75% improvement in Oswestry Disability Index and 66% had at least 75% improvement in VAS scores. Dural leaks occurred in two patients, which were repaired intraoperatively. No other adverse events occurred.
Kambin  (n = 40) described the effectiveness of endoscopic decompression for lateral recess stenosis. At 36 months of follow-up the results for general improvement showed that 82% had a satisfactory outcome and 18% was considered a failure, but it was unclear how this was defined. Furthermore, at 3-year follow-up 87% had returned to work. The complication rate was 7.9 and 5.2% re-operations were reported.
Knight  (n = 24) included patients with chronic complaints due to symptomatic isthmic spondylolitis: grade I (n = 14), grade II (n = 9) and grade III (n = 1). They were operated by posterolateral endoscopic foraminal decompression with laser-assisted bone and soft tissue ablation. Elements causing distortion, compression, traction or irritation of the nerve were ablated confirmed by immediate pain relief by the wakeful patient. At 34 months of follow-up the mean improvements in pain (VAS) were 69% leg, 61% back and 70% buttock. The outcome of functional disability (ODI) improved on average by 70%. The 13% who failed to improve after posterolateral endoscopic foraminal decompression responded sufficiently to open decompression.
Schreiber and Leu [19, 20] (n = 174) assessed the effectiveness of percutaneous nucleotomy with discoscopy. Results were separately presented for patients with an isolated lumbar disc herniation (n = 92) and patients with concomitant lumbar pathology (n = 82) (e.g. spondylolysthesis/olisthesis, narrow spinal canal or former open low back surgery). In the group with concomitant lumbar pathology, the outcomes on global perceived effect was 69% satisfactory (‘excellent’ and ‘good’ were not reported separately) after a mean follow-up of 28 months.
Savitz  (n = 20) assessed the effectiveness of percutaneous endoscopic discectomy (n = 8) and open microdiscectomy (n = 12) retrospectively for symptomatic lumbar disc herniations in the presence of a stenotic spinal canal. After 1-year follow-up only the re-operation rates were reported; none of the 20 patients required additional decompression.
Other studies [22, 23, 24] that were found describing foraminal stenosis as an inclusion criterion did not report the results such that enabled extracting data specifically for patients with lumbar stenosis.
In the current review, the available evidence regarding the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis was systematically identified and summarized. No randomized controlled trial, but only seven observational studies were identified that had a high risk of bias. Consequently, there is no valid evidence on the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis.
There are a number of issues that need to be considered. The included studies in this review were heterogeneous with regard to the selection of patients, the indications for surgery, the surgical techniques used and the duration of follow up. Furthermore, the sample sizes of most studies were small and different outcome measures were used.
Central lumbar stenosis can be managed by decompression laminotomy or laminectomy. A fusion procedure with or without instrumentation may be performed at the same time to prevent instability . In a review by Postacchini, satisfactory outcomes of 52–67%, leg pain improvement of 82% and back pain improvement of 71% were reported after decompressive surgery with or without fusion techniques. In the current review, three studies [15, 20, 21] included patients with a narrow spinal canal, but outcomes were not reported separately for this subgroup. Therefore, the results of the current review cannot be compared with the outcomes as reported for the decompression laminotomy or laminectomy.
Pure osteoligamentous lateral stenosis is a fairly uncommon condition. Lateral stenosis is commonly seen in association with global bulging of intervertebral discs, osteophytosis of the vertebral bodies and articular processes, narrowing of the intervertebral disc height, calcification of the posterior ligament and its foraminal expansion. Developmental conditions such as short pedicles and spondylolisthesis can also cause lateral recess stenosis . Lateral lumbar stenosis is mostly surgically managed by decompression of the nerve root emerging from the thecal sac along its entire course in the radicular canal by means of unilateral laminotomy with or without medial facetectomy . Postacchini  reported satisfactory results from several studies of patients with lateral stenosis after laminotomy of 79–93%. In the current review, we found satisfactory outcomes of 83% after transforaminal endoscopic surgery in patients with lateral stenosis [14, 17].
The possible advantages of transforaminal endoscopic surgery are described in many articles. The procedure can be performed in an outpatient or day-surgery setting. Because of the small incision and minimal internal tissue damage, the rehabilitation period is supposed to be shorter and scar tissue fewer. The procedure can be performed in wakeful patients under local anaesthesia and conscious sedation, thereby avoiding the risk of general anaesthesia especially for elderly and infirm individuals [26, 27]. Despite these potential advantages, disadvantages are also reported. Transforaminal endoscopic surgery has a steep learning curve that requires patience and experience, especially for those unfamiliar with percutaneous techniques. Some patients may experience local anaesthesia as a disadvantage. The current study seems to suggest that after transforaminal endoscopic surgery 69–83% of the patients experience a satisfactory outcome.
Unfortunately, no randomized controlled studies directly comparing the transforaminal endoscopic surgery with the most appropriate alternative were indentified. It would be timely to perform high-quality randomized controlled trials comparing transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis with other surgical techniques, with an adequate duration of follow-up that is at least 2 years. For future trials, we strongly recommend following the CONSORT statement  and the use of well validated and reliable outcome measurement tools and cut-off values [29, 30].
This systematic review assessed the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for patients with lumbar stenosis. Seven observational studies were found. The studies were of low methodological quality and heterogeneous regarding patient selection, indications, operation techniques, follow-up period and outcome measures. No randomized controlled trial was identified. Consequently, there is no valid evidence on the effectiveness of transforaminal endoscopic surgery for lumbar stenosis.
Conflict of interest statement
For this review the authors received a grant from The Health Care Insurance Board (CVZ), Diemen, The Netherlands.
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.