January 1st, 2014 , Neurosurg Focus.

Timing of surgery in thoracolumbar trauma: is early intervention safe?

The understanding of the optimal surgical timing for stabilization in thoracolumbar fractures is severely limited. Thoracolumbar spine fractures can be devastating injuries and are often associated with significant morbidity and mortality. The role of early surgical stabilization (within 48-72 hours of injury) as a vehicle to improve outcomes in these patients has generated significant interest. Goals of early stabilization include improved neurological recovery, faster pulmonary recovery, improved pain control, and decreased health care costs. Opponents cite the potential for increased bleeding, hypotension, and the risk of further cord injury as a few factors that weigh against early stabilization. The concept of spinal cord injury and its relationship to surgical timing remains in question. However, when neurological outcomes are eliminated from the equation, certain measures have shown positive influences from prompt surgical fixation. Early fixation of thoracolumbar spine fractures can significantly decrease the duration of hospital stay and the number of days in the intensive care unit. Additionally, prompt stabilization can reduce rates of pulmonary complications. This includes decreased rates of pneumonia and fewer days on ventilator support. Cost analysis revealed as much as $80,000 in savings per patient with early stabilization. All of these benefits come without an increase in morbidity or evidence of increased mortality. In addition, there is no evidence that early stabilization has any ill effect on the injured or uninjured spinal cord. Based on the existing data, early fixation of thoracolumbar fractures has been linked with positive outcomes without clear evidence of negative impacts on the patient’s neurological status, associated morbidities, or mortality. These procedures can be viewed as “damage control” and may consist of simple posterior instrumentation or open reductions with internal fixation as indicated. Based on the current literature it is advisable to proceed with early surgical stabilization of thoracolumbar fractures in a well-resuscitated patient, unless extenuating medical conditions would prevent it.


ICU = intensive care unit; LOS = length of stay; PLC = posterior ligamentous complex; SCI = spinal cord injury; TLICS = Thoracolumbar Injury Classification and Severity Score; early; thoracolumbar; timing; trauma