Immune function, pain, and psychological stress in patients undergoing spinal surgery

Angela R. Starkweather*, Linda Witek-Janusek, Russ P. Nockels, Jonna Peterson, Herbert L. Mathews

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


STUDY DESIGN. This study was an exploratory repeated measures design comparing patients undergoing two magnitudes of surgery in the lumbar spine: lumbar herniated disc repair and posterior lumbar fusion. OBJECTIVE. The present study evaluated and compared the effect of perceived pain, perceived stress, anxiety, and mood on natural killer cell activity (NKCA) and IL-6 production among adult patients undergoing lumbar surgery. SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA. Presurgical stress and anxiety can lead to detrimental patient outcomes after surgery, such as increased infection rates. It has been hypothesized that such outcomes are due to stress-immune alterations, which may be further exacerbated by the extent of surgery. However, psychologic stress, anxiety, and mood have not been previously characterized in patients undergoing spinal surgery. METHODS. Pain, stress, anxiety, and mood were measured using self-report instruments at T1 (1 week before surgery), T2 (the day of surgery), T3 (the day after surgery), and T4 (6 weeks after surgery). Blood (30 mL) was collected for immune assessments at each time point. RESULTS. Pain, stress, anxiety, and mood state were elevated at baseline in both surgical groups and were associated with significant reduction in NKCA compared with the nonsurgical control group. A further decrease in NKCA was observed 24 hours after surgery in both surgical groups with a significant rise in stimulated IL-6 production, regardless of the magnitude of surgery. In the recovery period, NKCA increased to or above baseline values, which correlated with decreased levels of reported pain, perceived stress, anxiety, and mood state. CONCLUSIONS. This study demonstrated that patients undergoing elective spinal surgery are highly stressed and anxious, regardless of the magnitude of surgery and that such psychologic factors may mediate a reduction in NKCA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E641-E647
Issue number18
StatePublished - Aug 2006


  • Lumbar fusion
  • Lumbar herniated disc
  • Lumbar spondylosis
  • Proinflammatory cytokines
  • Psychoneuroimmunology
  • Spinal surgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology


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