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Inpatient gradual diagnostics and its relevance for determining treatment strategies in lumbar back pain
© The Author(s). 2016
Received: 16 February 2016
Accepted: 2 July 2016
Published: 12 July 2016
Identifying patients who will benefit from spine surgery is still a challenge. This is especially the case when patients’ complaints and medical history, together with clinical observations, do not correspond to structural pathological changes. With inpatient gradual diagnostics (IGD)—the administration of analgesic and anti-inflammatory agents to a special area of interest—the effect of surgery can be temporarily simulated. From the patient’s statement about the alleviation of pain, the surgeon can draw conclusions concerning its causes. The aim of this study was to evaluate the extent to which IGD influences the decision about the nature and scope of surgical treatment strategies, and the way in which it does so, in patients with chronic lumbar back pain.
Clinical history and radiologic images were analysed retrospectively in 116 patients by two spine surgeons. Two therapeutic recommendations were developed for each patient: one was based on knowledge before IGD and one on knowledge after IGD.
IGD changed the treatment strategy in 39 % of the analysed cases. Although the rate of recommended surgery was reduced by about 10 %, the indicated surgical scope increased in 25 % of cases.
IGD is an established concept used to determine therapeutic strategies in patients with chronic lumbar back pain. In our analysed cases, IGD led to highly relevant changes in recommendations for further surgical treatment.
Lumbar back pain, with a lifetime prevalence of about 80 %, leads to enormous direct and indirect costs to the health care system [1–3]. It can affect people of all ages and, once ocurred, in many cases is a recurrent condition . While benign and mixed back pain are believed to reach their maximum in the sixth decade of life, it is assumed that severe disabling episodes due to chronic low back pain rise in prevalence with increasing age [5, 6]. Depending on the cause of the patient’s complaints, as well as the patient’s condition and expectations, therapeutic approaches range from conservative treatment, including physiotherapy with analgesics, orthotics, and local infiltration therapy, to multimodal pain therapy and finally to surgical procedures. Over the past decades, the number of spine surgeries has increased enormously . This is partly because the number of otherwise healthy patients in our ageing society is increasing and better medical care is available, even in rural areas. Moreover, improvements in surgical, perioperative, and anaesthesia techniques have allowed a shift in the threshold of indications for surgery. On the other hand, some authors claim that over the past years, therapeutic strategies have overly focused on surgical treatment, an opinion that seems to be supported by an absolute increase in failure rates after lumbar fusions, followed by adjacent lumbar segment degeneration . Lumbar spine surgery, with its complications, can be contrasted with conservative strategies that also achieve good results . It is therefore of paramount importance to identify patients who will benefit from spine surgery. This is especially so in many cases in which patients’ complaints and medical history, together with clinical observations, do not correspond to structural pathological changes found on X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
For this reason, the concept of inpatient gradual diagnostics (IGD) has found widespread use in Germany over the past two decades . Through local administration of analgesic and anti-inflammatory agents to a special area of interest, e.g. facet/sacroiliac joints or the epidural space, the effect of surgery can be temporarily simulated. From the patient’s statement about the alleviation of pain, the surgeon can draw conclusions concerning its cause.
The aim of this study was to evaluate the extent to which IGD influences the decision about the nature and scope of surgical treatment strategies, and the way in which it does so, in patients with chronic lumbar back pain.
During our spinal consultation, we compare a patient’s clinical findings with radiographs (antero-posterior and lateral) and an MRI of the lumbar spine. In cases with a discrepancy between the clinical presentation and the radiological findings in particular, IGD is scheduled to evaluate the possible benefit to the patient from surgical intervention.
On the day that the patient is admitted for IGD, a laboratory blood analysis is performed to rule out possible infection. Over the course of the following days, the patient receives selective infiltrations at loci that, depending on the patient’s response to the anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs, influence the decision of the ensuing treatment strategy. Target sites are mainly the facet joints, epidural space, sacroiliac joints, deep back muscles or the spinal nerve at its exit through the intervertebral foramen. In the case of an epidural injection, for safety reasons, patients are asked to stay in bed for 2 h with their trunk elevated 30°. Injections are performed daily and their effect is registered by repeatedly using the Numeric Pain Rating Scale before and after infiltration to assess pain and enquiring about pain alleviation as a percentage of pain reduction in the back or leg. The surgeon can thus draw conclusions as to the main causes of the patient’s pain. At the end of the week, from the synopsis of the responses to the injections, along with the clinical and radiological findings, a well-founded recommendation concerning future treatment is generated.
Infiltrations are radiologically guided under a C-arm X-ray unit. The injection technique is based on the recommendations of Theodoridis and Krämer [11, 12]. The analgesic bupivacaine (1 %) and the corticosteroid triamcinolone (10 mg/ml) are injected at the site, the mixture and quantity of which varies, depending on the location being addressed.
Evaluation of treatment strategy before and after IGD
All patients admitted to our department for IGD from January 2011 to December 2012 (n = 116) were selected for retrospective analysis and evaluated by two experienced spine surgeons. The medical letters generated during consultation before admittance to hospital describing the symptoms and the clinical findings were analysed, together with the radiologic images of each patient (X-rays and MRI; if MRI was contraindicated, then myelo-computed tomography was used). The surgeons were asked to determine the orthopaedic course of action they would recommend without the possibility of further evaluation by IGD. Eight weeks later, the same data were presented to the spine surgeons. This time, in addition, the medical reports created at discharge from hospital after IGD were made available. They contained the patients’ statements regarding the achieved effect by each of the infiltrations. The spine surgeons were then asked to determine the treatment strategy from the synopsis of all available data; however, they were asked to do this without knowing what their first assessment was for each patient.
Distributions of variables within the study groups were assessed by histograms. Because age is non-normally distributed, it is reported as a median (range). Categorical variables are reported as absolute and relative frequencies. The graphic presentation is in the form of histograms and bar diagrams. Statistical analysis was conducted by using IBM SPSS version 22.
Characteristics of the analysed sample and principal strategies before and after inpatient gradual diagnostics (IGD)
70 (60 %)
46 (40 %)
No surgery (pre/post IGD)
Decompression (pre/post IGD)
Fusion (pre/post IGD)
Other (pre/post IGD)
Changes of treatment strategy after inpatient gradual diagnostics (IGD)
Number of cases/ Total cases
Strategy changed through IGD
Strategy unaltered after IGD
No surgery indicated before IGD
Surgery indicated before IGD
Indication for conservative approach confirmed by IGD
Surgery indicated by IGDa
Indication for surgery confirmed by IGD
Indication for surgery refused by IGDb
Scope of initially suggested surgical procedure extended by IGD (without cases with no indication for surgery before IGD)c
Scope of indicated surgical procedure reduced by IGD (without cases with no indication for surgery after IGD)d
IGD is an established concept for determining therapeutic strategies in patients with chronic lumbar back pain, especially in those cases in which symptoms do not correspond to radiomorphological findings. In addition, in multisegment degeneration, IGD is used to assess the necessary surgical scope. IGD leads to significant changes in recommendations for further surgical treatment. In summary, the total number of patients in the current study who were recommended to have surgery was reduced. The chosen operative scope, however, showed a tendency to be slightly more extensive than what would have been the case without IGD. This is, however, probably strongly dependent on the population of patients and the diagnoses that lead to indications for IGD. IGD does not have a therapeutic purpose in itself, but is designed to test different surgical target sites for their aptness for surgery. Pain alleviation is, therefore, only of short duration.
Regarding IGD as a concept, the extent to which local infiltrations can temporarily simulate the effect and success of spine surgery needs to be addressed. In our local situation, from our experience, success can be well predicted. For example, a patient with back pain caused by facet joint degeneration of L4/5 who has 100 % relief after facet joint infiltration has a high probability of benefiting from lumbar fusion of L4/5. On the other hand, we often do not know whether the pain is caused only by for example facet joint degeneration seen on MRI and X-rays. It is important to take into consideration that comorbidities such as mental instabilities or other diseases could strongly influence pain before and after surgery. This consideration is, however, much facilitated by IGD because of the intensive doctor-patient relationship and the observations drawn over the course of several days.
The major limitation of this study is the fact that treatment strategies were determined retrospectively. It is possible that interaction with the patient personally might lead to a different recommendation, depending on the physician’s personal attitude towards spine surgery. Moreover, even though impressions of the patient’s mental and emotional condition are mentioned in our medical reports, a medical report can never replace direct doctor-patient contact. Finally, no intra- or interobserver correlation was performed but recommendations given as a consensus of two experienced spine surgeons. Future studies will have to address this aspect.
IGD is an established concept used to determine therapeutic strategies in patients with chronic lumbar back pain. In our analysed collective, IGD led to highly relevant changes in recommendations for further surgical treatment.
ALIF, anterior lumbar interbody fusion; IGD, inpatient gradual diagnostics; L, lumbar vertebrae; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; st. p., status post; Th, thoracic vertebrae; TLIF, transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion
We thank Barbara Every, ELS, of BioMedical Editor, for English language editing. We acknowledge support by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Open Access Publishing Fund of Tuebingen.
We acknowledge support by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Open Access Publishing Fund of Tübingen University.
Availability of data and materials
A description of cases with a recommended procedure other than simple decompression or primary fusion surgery is available in Additional file 1: Online resource 1, the original data set in Additional file 2: Online resource 2.
UH designed the study, wrote the manuscript, helped with the data collection, and performed the statistical analyses. MG designed the study, performed the data collection, and helped to write the manuscript. FM helped with the data collection and wrote the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Full departmental, institutional and local ethical committee (project number: 328/2016BO2) approvals were obtained for the study. Written informed consent was not required due to the retrospective pseudonymised character of the study.
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