The purpose of this study was to find a landmark according to which the surgeon can dissect the cervical spine safely, with the lowest possibility of damaging the vertebral artery (VA) during anterior approaches to the cervical spine or the VA.
The “safe zone” for each level of the cervical spine was described as an area where the surgeon can start from the midline in that zone and dissect the soft tissue laterally to end up on the transverse process and cross the VA while still on the transverse process. In other words, safe zone signifies the narrowest width of the transverse process at each level. In such an approach, the VA is protected from the inadvertent deep penetration of the instruments by the transverse process. The surgical safe zone for each level was the common area among at least 95% of the safe zones for that level. For the purpose of defining the upper and lower borders of the safe zone for each level, the line passing from the upper vertebral border perpendicular to the midline (upper vertebral border line) was used as a reference.
Cervical spines of 64 formalin-fixed cadavers were dissected. The soft tissue in front of the transverse process and intertransverse space was removed. Digital pictures of the specimens were taken before and after removal of the transverse processes, and the distance to the upper and lower border of the safe zone from the upper vertebral border line was measured on the digital pictures with Image J software. The VA diameter and distance from the midline at each level were also measured. To compare the means, the authors used t-test and ANOVA.
The surgical safe zone lies between 1 mm above and 1 mm below the upper vertebral border at the fourth vertebra, 2 mm above and 1 mm below the upper vertebral border at the fifth vertebra, and 1 mm above and 2 mm below the upper vertebral border of the sixth vertebra. The VA was observed to be tortuous in 13% of the intertransverse spaces. There is a positive association between disc degeneration and tortuosity of the VA at each level (p < 0.001). The artery becomes closer to the midline (p < 0.001) and moves posteriorly during its ascent.
Dissection of the soft tissue off the bone along the surgical safe zone and removal of the transverse process afterward can be a practical and safe approach to avoid artery lacerations. The findings in the present study can be used in anterior approaches to the cervical spine, especially when the tortuosity of the artery mandates exposure of the VA prior to uncinate process resection, tumor excision, or VA repair.