To determine why some patients have no improvement after surgical treatment of lumbar spinal stenosis.

We conducted a retrospective study of patients who were referred to our institution between 1990 and 1993 because their symptoms were unchanged or worsened after lumbar decompressive laminectomy.

For the 45 study patients (25 women and 20 men; mean age, 70.8 years), preoperative and postoperative clinical status, preoperative and postoperative imaging studies, and operative reports were analyzed.

Preoperatively, only 23 patients (51%) had the clinical syndrome of neurogenic claudication, and 15 (33%) had midline low-back pain without a radicular component. Three other patients had peripheral neuropathy, and three had atypical leg pain. Only 10 patients had radiographic evidence of severe lumbar canal stenosis; the others had moderate, mild, or no stenosis. In 10 patients, surgical decompression was inadequate. Only three patients had the triad of neurogenic claudication, radiographically confirmed severe lumbar stenosis, and adequate decompression of the lumbar canal and lateral recesses.

The most common pattern in patients with early failure after lumbar laminectomy was the absence of actual neurogenic claudication coupled with the absence of severe stenosis on preoperative imaging studies. The most common technical error was inadequate neural decompression. These data suggest that the outcome may be improved by more careful selection of patients and by performance of an adequate surgical decompression.

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