Symptomatic cervical spondylosis with or without radiculopathy can ground an active-duty military pilot if left untreated. Surgically treated cervical spondylosis may be a waiverable condition and allow return to flying status, but a waiver is based on expert opinion and not on recent published data. Previous studies on rates of return to active duty status following anterior cervical spine surgery have not differentiated these rates among military specialty occupations. No studies to date have documented the successful return of US military active-duty pilots who have undergone anterior cervical spine surgery with cervical fusion, disc replacement, or a combination of the two. The aim of this study was to identify the rate of return to an active duty flight status among US military pilots who had undergone anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) or total disc replacement (TDR) for symptomatic cervical spondylosis.
The authors performed a single-center retrospective review of all active duty pilots who had undergone either ACDF or TDR at a military hospital between January 2010 and June 2017. Descriptive statistics were calculated for both groups to evaluate demographics with specific attention to preoperative flight stats, days to recommended clearance by neurosurgery, and days to return to active duty flight status.
Authors identified a total of 812 cases of anterior cervical surgery performed between January 1, 2010, and June 1, 2017, among active duty, reserves, dependents, and Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs patients. There were 581 ACDFs and 231 TDRs. After screening for military occupation and active duty status, there were a total of 22 active duty pilots, among whom were 4 ACDFs, 17 TDRs, and 2 hybrid constructs. One patient required a second surgery. Six (27.3%) of the 22 pilots were nearing the end of their career and electively retired within a year of surgery. Of the remaining 16 pilots, 11 (68.8%) returned to active duty flying status. The average time to be released by the neurosurgeon was 128 days, and the time to return to flying was 287 days. The average follow-up period was 12.3 months.
Adhering to military service-specific waiver guidelines, military pilots may return to active duty flight status after undergoing ACDF or TDR for symptomatic cervical spondylosis.