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Surgery versus conservative care for neck pain: a systematic review



General practitioners refer patients with continued neck pain that do not respond well to conservative care frequently to secondary care for further assessment. Are surgical interventions to the cervical spine effective when compared to conservative care for patients with neck pain?


Systematic review.


The search strategy outlined by the Cochrane Back Review Group (CBRG) was followed. The primary search was conducted in MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, CENTRAL, and PEDro up to June 2011. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials (CCTs) of adults with neck pain, which evaluated at least one clinically relevant primary outcome measure (e.g. pain, functional status, recovery), were included. In addition, treatments had to include surgery and conservative care. Two authors independently assessed risk of bias using the criteria recommended by the CBRG and extracted the data. The quality of the evidence was rated using the GRADE method.


Patients included had neck pain with or without radiculopathy or myelopathy. In total, three RCTs and six CCTs were identified comparing different surgical interventions with conservative care, of which one had a low risk of bias. Overall there is very low quality of evidence available on the effectiveness of surgery compared to conservative care in neck pain patients showing overall no differences.


Most studies on surgical techniques comparing these to conservative care showed a high risk of bias. The benefit of surgery over conservative care is not clearly demonstrated.

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This work was funded by the Dutch National Health Insurance Council.

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Correspondence to Arianne P. Verhagen.

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van Middelkoop, M., Rubinstein, S.M., Ostelo, R. et al. Surgery versus conservative care for neck pain: a systematic review. Eur Spine J 22, 87–95 (2013).

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  • Systematic review
  • Randomised controlled trials
  • Surgery
  • Conservative care