Randomized controlled trials comparing surgery to non-operative management in neurosurgery: a systematic review

Acta Neurochirurgica (2019) 161:627–634

A randomized controlled trial (RCT) remains the pinnacle of clinical research design. However, RCTs in neurosurgery, especially those comparing surgery to non-operative treatment, are rare and their relevance and applicability have been questioned. This study set out to assess trial design and quality and identify their influence on outcomes in recent neurosurgical trials that compare surgery to non-operative treatment.

Methods From 2000 to 2017, PubMed and Embase databases and four trial registries were searched. RCTs were evaluated for study design, funding, adjustments to reported outcome measures, accrual of patients, and academic impact.

Results Eighty-two neurosurgical RCTs were identified, 40 in spine disorders, 19 neurovascular and neurotrauma, 11 functional neurosurgery, ten peripheral nerve, and two pituitary surgery. Eighty-four RCTs were registered, of which some are ongoing. Trial registration rate differed per subspecialty. Funding was mostly from non-industry institutions (58.5%), but 25.6% of RCTs did not report funding sources. 36.4% of RCTs did not report a difference between surgical and non-operative treatment, 3.7% favored non-operative management. Primary and secondary outcome measures were changed in 13.2% and 34.2% of RCTs respectively and varied by subspecialty. 41.9% of RCTs subtracted ≥ 10% of the anticipated accrual and 12.9% of RCTs added ≥ 10%. 7.3% of registered RCTs were terminated, mostly due to too slow recruitment. Subspecialty, registration, funding, masking, population size, and changing outcome measures were not significantly associated with a reported benefit of surgery. High Jadad scores (≥ 4) were negatively associated with a demonstration of surgical benefit (P < 0.05).

Conclusions Neurosurgical RCTs comparing surgical to non-operative treatment often find a benefit for surgical treatment. Changes to outcome measurements and anticipated accrual are common and funding sources are not always reported.