The management of unstable traumatic thoracolumbar fractures without neurological deficits remains controversial. The objective of this study was to compare the effectiveness of operative and conservative treatment of unstable traumatic thoracolumbar fractures. PubMed was used to search for articles published from January 1992 to January 2003 using a variety of keywords. References were checked to identify additional studies. Inclusion criteria were: (1) traumatic lumbar, thoracic or thoracolumbar fractures, (2) unstable fractures without neurological deficits, (3) a comparison between operative and conservative treatment, (4) at least ten patients were included in the study. Seventeen studies were identified; four prospective and 13 retrospective studies. Sample sizes in 15 studies were relatively small (18-100 patients); two studies had larger sample sizes. Comparison among different studies was difficult due to insufficient description of interventions, different outcome measures, and different length of follow-up periods. The current literature does not provide a reliable answer to whether operative or conservative treatment is more effective for unstable traumatic thoracolumbar fractures. High quality randomised controlled trials are direly needed.