Secondary gain influences the outcome of lumbar but not cervical disc surgery

George J. Kaptain, Christopher I. Shaffrey, Tord D. Alden*, Jacob N. Young, Edward R. Laws, Richard Whitehill

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND - The expectation of monetary compensation has been associated with poor outcomes in lumbar discectomy, fueling a reluctance among surgeons to treat worker's compensation cases. This issue, however, has not been investigated in patients undergoing cervical disc surgery. This study analyzes the relationship between economic forms of secondary gain and surgical outcome in a group of patients with common pay scales, retirement plans, and disability programs. METHODS - All procedures were performed at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center between 1993 and 1995; active duty military servicepersons who were treated for cervical radiculopathy were prospectively included. Clinical, demographic, and financial factors were analyzed to determine which were predictive for outcome. Financial data were used to create a compensation incentive (CI) which is proportional to the rank, years of service, potential disability, retirement eligibility, and base pay and reflects the monetary incentive of disability. The results of cervical surgery were compared to a previously reported companion population of patients treated for lumbar disc disease. A good outcome is defined as a return to active duty, whereas a referral for disability is considered a poor surgical result. RESULTS - One hundred percent follow-up was obtained for 269 patients who were treated with 307 cervical operations. Only 16% (43/269) of cervical patients received disability, whereas 24.7% (86/348) of lumbar patients obtained a poor result (p = 0.0082). Although economic forms of secondary gain were not associated with outcome in cervical disease, both the position (p = 0.002) and duration of an individual's military career were significant factors (p = 0.02). Of the medical variables tested, multilevel surgery (p = 0.03) and revision operations at the same level (p = 0.03) were associated with referral for medical discharge. CONCLUSIONS - Secondary gain in the form of economic compensation influences outcome in lumbar but not cervical disc surgery; this observation may in part account for the success of cervical surgery relative to lumbar discectomy. Social factors that are independent of the anticipation of economic compensation seem to influence the outcome of cervical disc surgery. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-225
Number of pages9
JournalSurgical Neurology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1999


  • Cervical spine
  • Cervical surgery
  • Disability evaluation
  • Intervertebral disc
  • Lumbar spine
  • Treatment outcome
  • Worker's compensation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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