Not enough evidence on the routine use of surgery in addition to drug treatment for people with tuberculosis of the spine

Spinal tuberculosis (spinal TB) occurs in about 1% to 2% of people with TB (the most common infectious disease in the world). The disease can have a major impact on people's lives. Nerves can be squeezed causing pain, loss of feeling, and breathing problems. It can cause bone loss and curvature of the spine, which can lead to loss of nerve function and paralysis after some years, even if the TB has been cured. Correcting with surgery at this point can be difficult because of the complexity of the surgery required. It has been suggested that surgery might be undertaken at the time the TB of the spine is diagnosed and drug treatment (chemotherapy) is being used. However, all surgery has potential adverse effects. This review of trials found there were insufficient numbers of participants in the two trials located (331 participants) to be able to say if routine surgery early on was of overall benefit. Further trials are needed and such trials should assess the pain that people suffer and their views of the disease and treatment.

Authors' conclusions: 

The two included trials had too few participants to be able to say whether routine surgery might help. Although current medication and operative techniques are now far more advanced, these results indicate that routine surgery cannot be recommended unless within the context of a large, well-conducted randomized controlled trial. Clinicians may judge that surgery may be clinically indicated in some groups of patients. Future studies need to address these topics as well as the patient's view of their disease and treatment.

Read the full abstract...

Tuberculosis is generally curable with chemotherapy, but there is controversy in the literature about the need for surgical intervention in the one to two per cent of people with tuberculosis of the spine.


To compare chemotherapy plus surgery with chemotherapy alone for treating people diagnosed with active tuberculosis of the spine.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialized Register (February 2010), CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2010, Issue 1), MEDLINE (1966 to February 2010), EMBASE (1974 to February 2010), LILACS (1982 to February 2010), conference proceedings, and reference lists. A search update in November 2012 revealed no new studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized controlled trials with at least one year follow up that compared chemotherapy plus surgery with chemotherapy alone for treating active tuberculosis of the thoracic and/or lumbar spine.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed trial eligibility, methodological quality, and extracted data. We analysed data using odds ratio with 95% confidence intervals.

Main results: 

Two randomized controlled trials (331 participants) met the inclusion criteria. They were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s with follow-up reports available after 18 months, three years, and five years; one trial also reported 10 years follow up. Completeness of follow up varied at the different time points, with less than 80% of participants available for analysis at several time points. There was no statistically significant difference for any of the outcome measures: kyphosis angle, neurological deficit (none went on to develop this), bony fusion, absence of spinal tuberculosis, death from any cause, activity level regained, change of allocated treatment, or bone loss. Neither trial reported on pain. Of the 130 participants allocated to chemotherapy only, 12 had a neurological deficit and five needed a decompression operation. One trial suggested that an initial kyphosis angle greater than 30° is likely to deteriorate, especially in children.