Thoracoscopic discectomy is a minimally invasive procedure simulating a thoracotomy and is an alternative to the costotransversectomy and transpedicular approaches. In recent studies authors have concluded that thoracoscopic discectomy is the preferred procedure; however, relative historical comparisons were difficult to interpret.
The authors conducted a prospective nonrandomized study in which they compared data on 36 patients undergoing thoracoscopic discectomy with eight patients undergoing thoracotomy between 1995 and 1999.
Patients affected with one- or two-level lesions underwent a thoracoscopic discectomy, and patients with three-level lesions or more underwent thoracotomy and discectomy. Data were collected on operative time, blood loss, chest tube duration, narcotic agent use, and hospital length of stay (LOS). Longer-term follow-up study of pain-related symptoms and neurological function was conducted.
Patients who underwent thoracoscopic discectomy had shorter operative times, less blood loss, a shorter period of chest tube drainage dependence, less narcotic usage, and a shorter LOS. These findings were statistically significant (p < 0.05) for narcotic usage and shorter LOS. Pain related to radiculopathy was improved by means of 75%, and no patients exprienced worsened pain. In patients with myelopathy there was an improvement of two Frankel grades in the thoracoscopic group and one Frankel grade in the thoracotomy discectomy group, but patients in the thoracotomy group were significantly worse preoperatively. One myelopathic patient from each group suffered a worsened outcome postoperatively, although this was not attributed to the method of surgery. The incidence of complications (minor and major) was 31% in the thoracoscopic group and greater than 100% (that is, more than one complication per patient) in the thoracotomy/discectomy group.
One advantage to thoracoscopic discectomy is its reduced incidence of morbidity compared with thoractomy, but its steep learning curve and unfamiliar surgical techniques make this procedure less practical for surgeons not performing it frequently. The more familiar costotransversectomy, transpedicular, and thoracotomy procedures remain viable alternatives for surgeons more experienced in these procedures.