When present sciatica is considered an obstacle to recovery in low back pain patients, yet evidence is limited regarding prognostic factors for persistent disability in this patient group. The aim of this study is to describe and summarise the evidence regarding prognostic factors for sciatica in non-surgically treated cohorts. Understanding the prognostic factors in sciatica and their relative importance may allow the identification of patients with particular risk factors who might benefit from early or specific types of treatment in order to optimise outcome.
A systematic literature search was conducted using Medline, EMBASE and CINAHL electronic databases. Prospective cohort studies describing subjects with sciatica and measuring pain, disability or recovery outcomes were included. Studies of cohorts comprised entirely of surgically treated patients were excluded and mixed surgically and conservatively treated cohorts were included only if the results were analysed separately by treatment group or if the analysis was adjusted for treatment.
Seven adequate or high quality eligible studies were identified. There were conflicting but mainly negative results regarding the influence of baseline pain severity, neurological deficit, nerve root tension signs, duration of symptoms and radiological findings on outcome. A number of factors including age, gender, smoking, previous history of sciatica and heaviness of work do not appear to influence outcome. In contrast to studies of low back pain and purely surgically treated sciatica cohorts, psychological factors were rarely investigated.
At present, the heterogeneity of the available studies makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about sciatica prognosis, and highlights the need for further research for this group of patients. Large scale prospective studies of high methodological quality, using a well-defined, consistent definition of sciatica and investigating psychosocial factors alongside clinical and radiological findings are recommended to identify prognostic factors in this population.