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The effectiveness of land based exercise compared to decompressive surgery in the management of lumbar spinal-canal stenosis: a systematic review

Mark S Jarrett12, Joseph F Orlando13* and Karen Grimmer-Somers1

Author Affiliations

1 International Centre for Allied Health Evidence, University of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide, SA 5000, Australia

2 Eastwood Physiotherapy, Fullarton Road, Eastwood, SA 5063, Australia

3 Physiotherapy Department, Royal Adelaide Hospital, North Terrace, Adelaide, SA 5000, Australia

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2012, 13:30  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-13-30

Published: 28 February 2012



Lumbar spinal stenosis (LSS) is prevalent in those over the age of 65 years and the leading cause of spinal surgery in this population. Recent systematic reviews have examined the effectiveness of conservative management for LSS, but not relative to surgical interventions. The aim of this review was to systematically examine the effectiveness of land based exercise compared with decompressive surgery in the management of patients with LSS.


A systematic review of randomised controlled trials and clinical trials was undertaken. The databases MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PEDro and Cochrane Library Register of Controlled Trials were searched from January 2000 to June 2011. Only studies that included subjects with lumbar spinal canal stenosis were considered in this review. Studies also had to use a patient reported functional outcome measure for a land based exercise intervention or lumbar decompressive surgery.


Only one study compared the effectiveness of exercise and decompressive surgery for LSS. Surgery demonstrated statistically significant improvements in patient reported functional outcome scores at 6, 12 and 24-months post-intervention (p < 0.01). To facilitate further analysis, the results from 12 exercise and 10 surgical intervention arms were compared using percentage change in patient reported functional outcome measure scores. Exercise interventions showed initial improvements, ranging from 16 to 29% above baseline. All decompressive surgical interventions demonstrated greater and sustained improvements over 2-years (range 38-67% improvement) with moderate to large effect sizes. The most commonly reported complications associated with surgery were dural tears, while details of adverse effects were lacking in exercise interventions.


This systematic review of the recent literature demonstrates that decompressive surgery is more effective than land based exercise in the management of LSS. However, given the condition's slowly progressive nature and the potential for known surgical complications, it is recommended that a trial of conservative management with land based exercise be considered prior to consideration of surgical intervention.