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To investigate the effects of surgical versus non-operative treatment on the physical function and safety of patients with lumbar disc herniation.PubMed, Cochrane Library, Embase, EBSCO, Web of Science, China National Knowledge Infrastructure and Chinese Biomedical Literature Database were searched from initiation to 15 May 2017.Randomized controlled trials that evaluated surgical versus non-operative treatment for patients with lumbar disc herniation were selected. The primary outcomes were pain and side-effects. Secondary outcomes were function and health-related quality of life. A random effects model was used to calculate the pooled mean difference with 95% confidence interval.A total of 19 articles that involved 2272 participants met the inclusion criteria. Compared with non-operative treatment, surgical treatment was more effective in lowering pain (short term: mean difference = −0.94, 95% confidence interval = −1.87 to −0.00; midterm: mean difference = −1.59, 95% confidence interval = −2.24 to −9.94), improving function (midterm: mean difference = −7.84, 95% confidence interval = −14.00 to −1.68; long term: mean difference = −12.21, 95% confidence interval = −23.90 to −0.52) and quality of life. The 36-item Short-Form Health Survey for physical functions (short term: mean difference = 6.25, 95% confidence interval = 0.43 to 12.08) and bodily pain (short term: mean difference = 5.42, 95% confidence interval = 0.40 to 10.45) was also utilized. No significant difference was observed in adverse events (mean difference = 0.82, 95% confidence interval = 0.28 to 2.38).Low-quality evidence suggested that surgical treatment is more effective than non-operative treatment in improving physical functions; no significant difference was observed in adverse events. No firm recommendation can be made due to instability of the summarized data.