Natural Language Processing in Spine Surgery: A Systematic Review of Applications, Bias, and Reporting Transparency

Bonnie B. Huang, Jonathan Huang, Kevin N. Swong*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Natural language processing (NLP) is a discipline of machine learning concerned with the analysis of language and text. Although NLP has been applied to various forms of clinical text, the applications and utility of NLP in spine surgery remain poorly characterized. Here, we systematically reviewed studies that use NLP for spine surgery applications, and analyzed applications, bias, and reporting transparency of the studies. Methods: We performed a literature search using the PubMed, Scopus, and Embase databases. Data extraction was performed after appropriate screening. The risk of bias and reporting quality were assessed using the PROBAST and TRIPOD tools. Results: A total of 12 full-text articles were included. The most common diseases represented include spondylolisthesis (25%), scoliosis (17%), and lumbar disk herniation (17%). The most common procedures included spinal fusion (42%), imaging (e.g. magnetic resonance, X-ray) (25%), and scoliosis correction (17%). Reported outcomes were diverse and included incidental durotomy, venous thromboembolism, and the tone of social media posts regarding scoliosis surgery. Common sources of bias identified included the use of older methods that do not capture the nuance of a text, and not using a prespecified or standard outcome measure when evaluating NLP methods. Conclusions: Although the application of NLP to spine surgery is expanding, current studies face limitations and none are indicated as ready for clinical use. Thus, for future studies we recommend an emphasis on transparent reporting and collaboration with NLP experts to incorporate the latest developments to improve models and contribute to further innovation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)156-164.e6
JournalWorld neurosurgery
StatePublished - Nov 2022


  • Artificial intelligence
  • Machine learning
  • NLP
  • Natural language processing
  • Spine
  • Spine surgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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