The diagnostic utility and cost-effectiveness of selective nerve root blocks in patients considered for lumbar decompression surgery: a systematic review and economic model

R Beynon, J Hawkins, R Laing, N Higgins, P Whiting, C Jameson, J A C Sterne, P Vergara, W Hollingworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Diagnostic selective nerve root block (SNRB) involves injection of local anaesthetic, sometimes in conjunction with corticosteroids, around spinal nerves. It is used to identify symptomatic nerve roots in patients with probable radicular pain that is not fully concordant with imaging findings.

OBJECTIVES: (1) Determine the diagnostic accuracy of SNRB in patients with low back and radiating pain in a lower limb; (2) evaluate whether or not accuracy varies by patient subgroups; (3) review injection-related adverse events; and (4) evaluate the cost-effectiveness of SNRB.

DATA SOURCES: MEDLINE, EMBASE, Science Citation Index, Bioscience Information Service (BIOSIS), Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences Literature (LILACS) and grey literature databases were searched from inception to August 2011. Reference lists of included studies were screened.

METHODS: A systematic review (SR) of studies that assessed the accuracy of SNRB or adverse events in patients with low back pain and symptoms in a lower limb for the diagnosis of lumbar radiculopathy. Study quality was assessed using the quality assessment of diagnostic accuracy studies (QUADAS)-2 checklist. We used random-effects meta-analysis to pool diagnostic accuracy data. Decision tree and Markov models were developed, combining SR results with information on the costs and outcomes of surgical and non-surgical care. Uncertainty was assessed using probabilistic and deterministic sensitivity analyses.

RESULTS: Five studies assessed diagnostic accuracy: three diagnostic cohort and two within-patient case-control studies. All were judged to be at high risk of bias and had high concerns regarding applicability. In individual studies, sensitivity ranged from 57% [95% confidence interval (CI) 43% to 70%] to 100% (95% CI 76% to 100%) and specificity from 9.5% (95% CI 1% to 30%) to 86% (95% CI 76% to 93%). The most reliable estimate was judged to come from two cohort studies that used post-surgery outcome as the reference standard; summary sensitivity and specificity were 93% (95% CI 86% to 97%) and 26% (95% CI 5% to 68%), respectively. No study provided sufficient detail to judge whether or not accuracy varied by patient subgroup. Seven studies assessed adverse events. There were no major or permanent complications; minor complications were reported in 0-6% of patients. The addition of SNRB to the diagnostic work-up was not cost-effective with an incremental cost per quality-adjusted life-year of £1,576,007. Sensitivity analyses confirmed that SNRB was unlikely to be a cost-effective method for diagnosis and planning surgical therapy.

LIMITATIONS: We identified very few studies; all were at high risk of bias. The conduct and interpretation of SNRBs varied and there was no gold standard for diagnosis. Limited information about the impact of SNRB on subsequent care and the long-term costs and benefits of surgery increased uncertainty about cost-effectiveness.

CONCLUSIONS: There were few studies that estimated the diagnostic accuracy of SNRB in patients with radiculopathy and all were limited by the difficulty of making a reference standard diagnosis. Summary estimates suggest that specificity is low, but results are based on a small number of studies at a high risk of bias. Based on current weak evidence, it is unlikely that SNRB is a cost-effective method for identifying the symptomatic nerve root prior to lumbar spine surgery. Future research should focus on randomised controlled trials to evaluate whether or not SNRB improves patient outcomes at acceptable cost.

FUNDING: The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-88, v-vi
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - May 2013


  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Decompression, Surgical
  • Humans
  • Lumbar Vertebrae
  • Models, Economic
  • Nerve Block
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years
  • Radiculopathy
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


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