Options of Thoracic Idiopathic Scoliosis Fixation and Fusion

For many years, the gold standard for fixation for a thoracic curve in idiopathic scoliosis was a single Harrington rod applied through a posterior approach, with a distraction rod on the left side. See Figures 1A & B. This yielded a "good result" in most cases. Posterior approach refers to exposing the laminae and posterior elements (Figures 2 and 3). Anterior approach refers to exposure of the vertebral bodies (Figures 4A & B and 5).

single harrington rod

single harrington rod
Figure 1A, Single Harrington rod
applied through a posterior approach
Figure 1B, Single Harrington rod
applied through a posterior approach

posterior spine

posterior spine
Figure 2, Posterior Approach
Figure 3, Posterior Approach

anterior scar

anterior scar
Figure 4A, Anterior Approach
Figure 4B, Anterior Approach
anterior spine
Figure 5, Anterior Approach

However, advances have been made centered on trying to obtain more correction and to get patients back to their previous activities more quickly with less reliance on bed rest, cast or brace.

A next step in the evolution was that of using two rods for a thoracic curve and achieving segmental fixation (fixation at each level) with either Wisconsin wires or sublaminar wires. A distraction rod was used on the left side and a neutralizing Luque rod on the right side. See Figures 6A–D.

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray
Figure 6A, Preoperative
Figure 6B, Side View
harrington rods
sublaminar wires
Figure 6C, 2 Harrington Rods
Figure 6D, Sublaminar Wires

The next evolutionary stage then was that of CD (Cotrel–Dubousset) instrumentation using multiple hooks with both rods in an effort to get even stronger fixation and to "derotate" the spine somewhat and also to reduce and correct the lordosis that often goes along with right thoracic curves. See Figures 7A–D.

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray
Figure 7A, Preoperative
Figure 7B, Side View
CD instrumentation
CD instrumentation with multiple hooks
Figure 7C, CD Instrumentation
Figure 7D, Multiple Hooks

Step 3 has now evolved into a concept of anchors at the top and the bottom of the curve with wires in between, either Wisconsin wires or sublaminar wires. In most cases, the distal anchors described are hooks or pedicle screws, and the proximal fixation points are hooks which are left loose until the final fixation. See Figures 8A–D for x–rays, Figures 8E & F for clinical result in the patient.

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray
idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray
Figure 8A,Preoperative
Figure 8B, Side View
wisconsin wires
wisconsin wires
Figure 8C, Wisconsin Wires
Figure 8D, Side View

preoperative idiopathic scoliosis preoperative idiopathic scoliosis postoperative idiopathic scoliosis
Figure 8E, Preoperative
postoperative idiopathic scoliosis
  Figure 8F, Postoperative

Step 4 of the evolutionary phase for posterior treatment has been that of using pedicle screws more liberally throughout the thoracic and upper lumbar spine in order to achieve more fixation, to reduce the number of levels being fused and to reduce the number of junctional problems. Junctional problems refer to breakdown or kyphosis that develops in segments above or below the instrumented vertebrae. See Figures 9A–D.

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray

idiopathic scoliosis preoperative x-ray
Figure 9A, Preoperative
Figure 9B, Side View
pedicle screws
pedicle screws
Figure 9C, Pedicle Screws
Figure 9D, Pedicle Screws Side View

Anterior instrumentation has been popular for thoracolumbar and lumbar curves for several years. See Figure 10.

anterior instrumentation
Figure 10 Anterior Instrumentation

Recently, anterior instrumentation for a thoracic curve has become popular. The advantages of the anterior procedure are the following:

(1) Saving one or two levels distally;
(2) Another alternative to correct the lordotic component of the thoracic curve;
(3) Some suggestion of slightly better correction and slightly better derotation. See Table 1.

Table 1.
Cons Pros
  • disrupts shoulder muscles
  • different incision
  • pseudarthrosis rate not clear
  • saves 1–2 fusion levels
  • effect on pulmonary function
  • slightly better correction
  • harder to revise

The anterior technique has evolved from use of the threaded rod, to use of the solid rod, to potentially the use of two solid rods anteriorly in certain patients. See Figures 11A–D. The potential advantages of the anterior approach are:

(1) A different scar;
(2) Preservation of the posterior spinal extensor muscles. See Table 2.

preoperative x-ray

preoperative idopathic scoliosis x-ray

Figure 11A, Preoperative

Figure 11B, Side View
x-ray of vertebral body screws
vertebral body screws
Figure 11C, Vertebral Body Screws
Figure 11D, Side View

Table 2.
Cons Pros
  • disrupts posterior muscles
  • pseudarthrosis rate known
  • implant prominence in thin patient
  • easier to revise
  • small incidence of junctional deformities
  • very stable
  • 1–2 more fusion levels than with anterior segmental spinal instrumentation

The anterior approach is still invasive, though, and does involve cutting through and then sewing up shoulder muscles such as the serratus anterior and the latissimus dorsi. The anterior approach has evolved further now into doing it with an endoscopic/video–assisted thoracoscopic technique. See Table 3.

Table 3.
Cons Pros
  • longer operation
  • less postop soreness
  • smaller implants
  • less effect on pulmonary function!??
  • postop brace needed
  • different scars
  • pseudarthrosis rate not known

Rather than a single incision, three to five "stab" incisions and otherwise the same surgery with a screw at each level and a single rod.

Further, many surgeons and patients decide to have either an internal or external thoracoplasty done at the time of the correction to reduce the size of the rib hump. We do know that anterior surgeries done with an open thoracotomy and also thoracoplasty techniques do diminish pulmonary functions which then take about two years to recover.

In the modern day, virtually no spine surgeons in North America use Harrington distraction. Surgeons use either open or endoscopic anterior approaches or posterior approaches with bilateral rods, hooks, wires and/or pedicle screws. Patients usually stand and walk the day after surgery and do not wear casts or braces.

At present there is no strong data to suggest that one technique is superior to the others. Each technique has the potential to work quite well for the patient as it does in most cases, but each of the techniques has limitations.

An incidence of pseudarthrosis (fusion not healing) still does exist with all techniques. With any posterior technique, there is a potential for implant prominence. With any anterior technique, there is a potential for reduced pulmonary function. Most surgeons do not brace the patient postoperatively except after the anterior endoscopic techniques. In five to ten years, it may become clearer that one technique is superior to the others. It is also quite possible in five to ten years that we will not decide that the various posterior and anterior techniques are all very equivalent.

Still the goal is to achieve a solid and stable fusion with the top and the bottom of the fusion in acceptable sagittal alignment and parallel to the shoulders and the pelvis.

Updated on: 09/18/12

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