This study reviews the presentation, diagnosis, and outcomes of upper lumbar disc herniations (L1-2, L2-3, L3-4). One hundred forty-one patients operated upon at three centers between 1980 and 1990 were analyzed (102 men, 39 women; 3 L1-2, 21 L2-3, 117 L3-4; average age 51.6 years; 10.4% of all lumbar discectomies performed). Preoperative signs and symptoms were highly variable. Sensory, motor, and reflex testing was variable and potentially misleading in suggesting a level of herniation. In analyzing radiographic studies (noncontrast CT, myelography, MRI) individually and using other radiographic studies and operative findings as a standard for comparison, a high false-negative rate was found for all studies when considered individually, especially at the higher L2-3 level. Intraoperative radiographs were employed with increasing frequency as the level of herniation ascended. Six operative complications (4.3%) were identified, all of which were treated and were resolving at the time of discharge. Follow-up obtained at an average of 2.2 years in 87% of patients by chart review showed no reoperations or late complications. Noncompensation patients had a significantly higher percentage of good/excellent results (86%) than those with compensation or legal claims pending (45% good/excellent results). Based upon these data, we recommend myelogram with postmyelogram CT and/or MRI in the workup of these patients and intraoperative radiographs in all cases when decompressing an upper lumbar disc herniation. Patients with compensation/legal claims should be approached cautiously, because their subjective results are significantly worse than those of noncompensation patients. Finally, consider the differential possibilities of retroperitoneal tumor or hemorrhage, abdominal aortic aneurysm, diabetic femoral neuropathy, or lumbar plexopathy in the workup of patients with signs and symptoms similar to those reported here.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Todd J. Albert, c/o Rothman Institute, 800 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, U.S.A.
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