Objectives: The optimal surgical approach and treatment of unstable thoracolumbar spine injuries are poorly defined owing to a lack of widely accepted level I clinical literature. This lack of evidence-based standards has led to varied practice patterns based on individual surgeon preferences. The purpose of this study was to survey the leaders in the field of spine trauma to define the major characteristics of thoracolumbar injuries that influence their surgical decision making. In the absence of good scientific data, expert consensus opinions may provide surgeons with a practical framework to guide therapy and to conduct future research.
Methods: A panel of 22 leading spinal surgeons from 20 level I trauma centers in seven countries met to discuss the indications for surgical approach selection in unstable thoracolumbar injuries. Injuries were presented to the surgeons in a case scenario survey format. Preferred surgical approaches to the clinical scenarios were tabulated and comments weighed.
Results: All members of the panel agreed that three independent characteristics of thoracolumbar injuries carry primary importance in surgical decision making: the injury morphology, the neurologic status of the patient, and the integrity of the posterior ligaments. Six clinical scenarios based on the neurologic status of the patient (intact, incomplete, or complete) and on the status of the posterior ligamentous complex (intact or disrupted) were created, and consensus treatment approaches were described. Additional circumstances capable of altering the treatments were acknowledged.
Conclusions: Decision making for the surgical treatment of thoracolumbar injuries is largely dependent on three patient characteristics: injury morphology, neurologic status, and posterior ligament integrity. A logical and practical decision-making process based on these characteristics may guide treatment even for the most complicated fracture patterns.