Although approximately half of the patients undergoing lumbar disk surgery present with motor deficits, timing of surgery for radicular weakness is largely unclear.

To evaluate the impact of surgical timing on motor recovery in patients with lumbar disk herniation (LDH) and to identify an ideal time window for intervention.

In a single-center observational trial, 390 patients with LDH-associated motor deficits were prospectively followed for a minimum of 12 months after nonelective microscopic disk surgery. The duration of motor deficit before surgery was documented. Motor function was graded according to the Medical Research Council (MRC) scale. Statistical analysis of motor recovery applied unbiased recursive partitioning conditional inference tree to determine cutoff times for optimal surgical intervention. The slope of recovery calculated as the change of the MRC grade over time served as the primary outcome.

A preoperative motor deficit of MRC ≤2/5 and the duration of paresis were identified as the most important predictors of recovery (P < .001). Surgery within 3 days was associated with a better recovery for both severe and moderate/mild deficits (P = .017 for MRC ≤ 2/5; P < .001 for MRC > 2/5; number needed to treat [NNT] < 2). A sensitivity analysis in mild motor deficits indicated a cutoff of 8 days.

Timing of surgery is crucial for motor recovery in LDH-associated deficits. Immediate diagnosis, imaging, and referral should be aimed for to allow disk surgery within 3 days in patients with severe and moderate radicular weakness. If functionally disabling, even mild deficits may warrant decompression within a week.

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