Object of Study.
The literature regarding surgical treatment’s impact on patient function after spinal fracture is sparse. Some authors have speculated that operative injury—the dissection of paraspinous muscle tissue, damage to spinal motion segments, implantation of spinal devices—may impair functional recovery in spine trauma patients. Nonoperative care has produced satisfactory results in some hands, but results are difficult to reproduce, treatment is resource-intensive, and functional outcomes are poorly documented. This study reports return to work and functional recovery in a 5-year follow-up of severely injured patients treated with segmental spinal instrumentation.
Materials and Methods.
Seventy consecutive patients treated with Cotrel Dubousset instrumentation for unstable thoracic, thoracolumbar, and lumbar spine fractures were followed-up. All had high-energy trauma and were admitted directly to a level 1 university trauma center; 38% were polytraumatized; and 56% had neurologic injuries. Indications for surgery included: (1) segmental instability; (2) incomplete or progressive neurologic injuries with residual spinal canal compromise; (3) concomitant injuries precluding cast treatment; and (4) polytrauma. Two patients died and six were lost to follow-up, leaving 62 (91%) for assessment at a mean 5-year follow-up (range 2–8 y). Clinical outcome has been reported. Functional recovery was assessed based on return to work, level of work, and level of daily activity.
Despite the severity of spinal and concomitant injuries, 70% of patients returned to full-time work and another 8% were considered capable: 54% to their previous level of employment without restrictions and 16% to full-time, but lighter, jobs. Twenty-two percent were working part-time or not at all, and 8% were unemployed despite unrestricted functional status. Work status correlated directly with neurologic impairment (P < 0.00005) and was not related to level of injury, hardware failure, extent of surgical dissection, or construct pattern. Of patients with limitations, 18% were limited by pain and 27% by neurologic injury.
Neurologic injury had a greater impact on functional outcome than any other variable. Patients limited by pain were more often impaired by residual radicular and neuropathic symptoms than by back pain. Impairment was not related to the extent of either the surgical incision or the instrumentation. Patients with persistent back pain generally had an identifiable and correctable mechanical problem—sagittal imbalance, pseudarthrosis, or persistent instability—as the underlying cause. Our series of trauma patients was predominantly young and male. Among this cohort, individual characteristics of occupation (often physical laborers and craftsmen) and judgment (criminal convictions and incarceration) may have restricted opportunities for re-employment in 40% of the entire study group.