The majority of patients suffering from a whiplash injury will recover, but some will have symptoms (Whiplash Associated Disorders, WAD) for years despite conservative treatment. Some of these patients perceive neck pain that might come from a motion segment, possibly the disc. In comprehensive reviews no evidence has been found that fusion operations have a positive treatment effect on neck pain in WAD patients.
Our aim was to evaluate the possibility of (a) selecting a subgroup of chronic WAD patients based on specified symptoms possibly indicating segmental pain, and (b) treating said segmental pain through fusion operation based on non-radiological segment localization. The hypothesis was that fusion operation in this selected subgroup of chronic WAD patients could alleviate perceived neck pain.
Eligible patients for the study had a traffic accident as the origin for their neck pain, and no previous neck symptoms. Neck pain should be the predominant symptom and the pain origin reported to be in the midline, being dull, aching in character and at sudden movements combined by a stabbing pain in the same area. Forty-nine patients with these specified symptoms were identified among a large number of chronic WAD patients. Those selected had pronounced symptoms for a median of around 50 months and had previously been investigated and fully treated within the ordinary healthcare system without success.
No neurological abnormalities were to be found at clinical examination and no specific changes to be seen on X-ray and MRI. The patients were randomized to either cervical fusion operation or multimodal rehabilitation. By using a mechanical provocation test the level/s to be fused were identified. In all but one patient the surgery was performed anteriorly using microsurgical technique and a right-sided Smith-Pedersen approach and plate fixation. The multimodal rehabilitation at the Clinic of Medical Rehabilitation, Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm, included outpatient treatment for four days a week for six weeks and included treatment by physician, physiotherapists, occupational therapist, psychologists, social-service worker and nurses. Perceived change in neck pain was assessed using the Balanced Inventory for Spinal Disorders questionnaire at the 2-year-follow-up.
Mean age of the patients was 38 and 40 years (surgery and rehabilitation groups, respectively), the most common type of accident being rear-end collision. At clinical examination muscle tenderness was not an outstanding sign. In most patients the mid-cervical region appeared to be the painful area but one patient localized the pain to C1. At follow-up 67% of the patients in the surgery group and 23% in the rehabilitation group assessed improvements in the ITT analysis. Corresponding proportions in the per protocol analysis were 83% and 12%, respectively.
The results support the supposition that among patients with central neck pain for long periods of time following a whiplash injury there are some in whom the neck pain emanates from a motion segment, probably the disc, a situation suitable for fusion surgery.
Thorough individual symptom evaluation in patients with chronic WAD may identify patients who will benefit from cervical fusion surgery.
Elsevier, 2016. Vol. 12, 33-42 p.
Fusion surgery, Multimodal rehabilitation, Neck pain, Randomized study, WAD symptoms, Whiplash injury