Classic biomechanical models have used thoracic spines disarticulated from the rib cage, but the biomechanical influence of the rib cage on fracture biomechanics has not been investigated. The well-accepted construct for stabilizing midthoracic fractures is posterior instrumentation 3 levels above and 2 levels below the injury. Short-segment fixation failure in thoracolumbar burst fractures has led to kyphosis and implant failure when anterior column support is lacking. Whether shorter constructs are viable in the midthoracic spine is a point of controversy. The objective of this study was the biomechanical evaluation of a burst fracture at T-9 with an intact rib cage using different fixation constructs for stabilizing the spine.
A total of 8 human cadaveric spines (C7–L1) with intact rib cages were used in this study. The range of motion (ROM) between T-8 and T-10 was the outcome measure. A robotic spine testing system was programmed to apply pure moment loads (± 5 Nm) in lateral bending, flexion-extension, and axial rotation to whole thoracic specimens. Intersegmental rotations were measured using an optoelectronic system. Flexibility tests were conducted on intact specimens, then sequentially after surgically induced fracture at T-9, and after each of 4 fixation construct patterns. The 4 construct patterns were sequentially tested in a nondestructive protocol, as follows: 1) 3 above/2 below (3A/2B); 2) 1 above/1 below (1A/1B); 3) 1 above/1 below with vertebral body augmentation (1A/1B w/VA); and 4) vertebral body augmentation with no posterior instrumentation (VA). A repeated-measures ANOVA was used to compare the segmental motion between T-8 and T-10 vertebrae.
Mean ROM increased by 86%, 151%, and 31% after fracture in lateral bending, flexion-extension, and axial rotation, respectively. In lateral bending, there was significant reduction compared with intact controls for all 3 instrumented constructs: 3A/2B (−92%, p = 0.0004), 1A/1B (−63%, p = 0.0132), and 1A/1B w/VA (−66%, p = 0.0150). In flexion-extension, only the 3A/2B pattern showed a significant reduction (−90%, p = 0.011). In axial rotation, motion was significantly reduced for the 3 instrumented constructs: 3A/2B (−66%, p = 0.0001), 1A/1B (−53%, p = 0.0001), and 1A/1B w/VA (−51%, p = 0.0002). Between the 4 construct patterns, the 3 instrumented constructs (3A/2B, 1A/1B, and 1A/1B w/VA) showed comparable stability in all 3 motion planes.
This study showed no significant difference in the stability of the 3 instrumented constructs tested when the rib cage is intact. Fractures that might appear more grossly unstable when tested in the disarticulated spine may be bolstered by the ribs. This may affect the extent of segmental spinal instrumentation needed to restore stability in some spine injuries. While these initial findings suggest that shorter constructs may adequately stabilize the spine in this fracture model, further study is needed before these results can be extrapolated to clinical application.