Background A chronic pain condition may result in altered autonomic nervous system regulation in various patient populations. We evaluated whether autonomic regulation differs between sciatica patients referred to spine surgery and age-matched healthy controls analyzed with heart rate variability techniques (HRV).
Methods HRV of patients (n = 201) and healthy controls (n = 138) were measured in standing conditions (5 min). High frequency (HF) power as an index of cardiac vagal modulation and the low-to-high-frequency (LF/HF) ratio and short-term fractal scaling exponent α1 as indices of sympathovagal balance were analyzed. Pain intensity was assessed on a Visual Analog Scale (VAS) and perceived disability with Oswestry Disability Index.
Results The Oswestry and VAS scores were higher in the patients than in the controls (p < 0.0001 for both). HF power was markedly lower for the patients compared to the controls (p < 0.0001). The LF/HF ratio and α1 were higher in the patients than in the controls (p < 0.01 for both). After adjusting for sex, smoking, BMI, and leisure-time physical activity, HF power (p = 0.011) and α1 (p = 0.012) still differed between the groups. Among the patients, HF power was slightly associated with the duration of chronic pain (r = −.232, p = 0.003).
Conclusions Sciatica patients referred to spine surgery had altered cardiac autonomic regulation expressed as decreased vagal activity and an increased sympathovagal balance toward sympathetic dominance when compared with age-matched healthy controls.