Lumbar radiculopathy (LR) often manifests as pain in the lower back radiating into one leg (sciatica). Unsuccessful back surgery is associated with significant healthcare costs and risks to patients. This review aims to examine the diagnostic accuracy of selective nerve root blocks (SNRBs) to identify patients most likely to benefit from lumbar decompression surgery.

Systematic review of diagnostic test accuracy studies.

Primary research articles using a patient population with low back pain and symptoms in the leg, SNRB administered under radiological guidance as index test, and any reported reference standard for the diagnosis of LR.

MEDLINE (Ovid), MEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE, Science Citation Index, Biosis, LILACS, Dissertation abstracts and National Technical Information Service from inception to 2018.

Risk of bias and applicability was assessed using the QUADAS-2 tool. We performed random-effects logistic regression to meta-analyse studies grouped by reference standard.

6 studies (341 patients) were included in this review. All studies were judged at high risk of bias. There was substantial heterogeneity across studies in sensitivity (range 57%-100%) and specificity (10%-86%) estimates. Four studies were diagnostic cohort studies that used either intraoperative findings during surgery (pooled sensitivity: 93.5% [95% CI 84.0 to 97.6]; specificity: 50.0% [16.8 to 83.2]) or 'outcome following surgery' as the reference standard (pooled sensitivity: 90.9% [83.1 to 95.3]; specificity 22.0% [7.4 to 49.9]). Two studies had a within-patient case-control study design, but results were not pooled because different types of control injections were used.

We found limited evidence which was of low methodological quality indicating that the diagnostic accuracy of SNRB is uncertain and that specificity in particular may be low. SNRB is a safe test with a low risk of clinically significant complications, but it remains unclear whether the additional diagnostic information it provides justifies the cost of the test.