The objective of this study is to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of total disc replacement surgery compared with spinal fusion in patients with symptomatic lumbar disc degeneration. Low back pain (LBP), a major health problem in Western countries, can be caused by a variety of pathologies, one of which is degenerative disc disease (DDD). When conservative treatment fails, surgery might be considered. For a long time, lumbar fusion has been the "gold standard" of surgical treatment for DDD. Total disc replacement (TDR) has increased in popularity as an alternative for lumbar fusion. A comprehensive systematic literature search was performed up to October 2008. Two reviewers independently checked all retrieved titles and abstracts, and relevant full text articles for inclusion. Two reviewers independently assessed the risk of bias of included studies and extracted relevant data and outcomes. Three randomized controlled trials and 16 prospective cohort studies were identified. In all three trials, the total disc replacement was compared with lumbar fusion techniques. The Charité trial (designed as a non-inferiority trail) was considered to have a low risk of bias for the 2-year follow up, but a high risk of bias for the 5-year follow up. The Charité artificial disc was non-inferior to the BAK® Interbody Fusion System on a composite outcome of "clinical success" (57.1 vs. 46.5%, for the 2-year follow up; 57.8 vs. 51.2% for the 5-year follow up). There were no statistically significant differences in mean pain and physical function scores. The Prodisc artificial disc (also designed as a non-inferiority trail) was found to be statistically significant more effective when compared with the lumbar circumferential fusion on the composite outcome of "clinical success" (53.4 vs. 40.8%), but the risk of bias of this study was high. Moreover, there were no statistically significant differences in mean pain and physical function scores. The Flexicore trial, with a high risk of bias, found no clinical relevant differences on pain and physical function when compared with circumferential spinal fusion at 2-year follow up. Because these are preliminary results, in addition to the high risk of bias, no conclusions can be drawn based on this study. In general, these results suggest that no clinical relevant differences between the total disc replacement and fusion techniques. The overall success rates in both treatment groups were small. Complications related to the surgical approach ranged from 2.1 to 18.7%, prosthesis related complications from 2.0 to 39.3%, treatment related complications from 1.9 to 62.0% and general complications from 1.0 to 14.0%. Reoperation at the index level was reported in 1.0 to 28.6% of the patients. In the three trials published, overall complication rates ranged from 7.3 to 29.1% in the TDR group and from 6.3 to 50.2% in the fusion group. The overall reoperation rate at index-level ranged from 3.7 to 11.4% in the TDR group and from 5.4 to 26.1% in the fusion group. In conclusion, there is low quality evidence that the Charite is non-inferior to the BAK cage at the 2-year follow up on the primary outcome measures. For the 5-year follow up, the same conclusion is supported only by very low quality evidence. For the ProDisc, there is very low quality evidence for contradictory results on the primary outcome measures when compared with anterior lumbar circumferential fusion. High quality randomized controlled trials with relevant control group and long-term follow-up is needed to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of TDR. © 2010 Springer-Verlag.