Posterior atlantoaxial stabilization and fusion using C-1 lateral mass screw fixation has become commonly used in the treatment of instability and for reconstructive indications since its introduction by Goel and Laheri in 1994 and modification by Harms in 2001. Placement of such lateral mass screws can be challenging because of the proximity to the spinal cord, vertebral artery, an extensive venous plexus, and the C-2 nerve root, which overlies the designated starting point on the posterior center of the lateral mass. An alternative posterior access point starting on the posterior arch of C-1 could provide a C-2 nerve root–sparing starting point for screw placement, with the potential benefit of greater directional control and simpler trajectory. The authors present a cadaveric study comparing an alternative strategy (i.e., a C-1 screw with a posterior arch starting point) to the conventional strategy (i.e., using the lower lateral mass entry site), specifically assessing the safety of screw placement to preserve the C-2 nerve root.
Five US-trained spine fellows instrumented 17 fresh human cadaveric heads using the Goel/Harms C-1 lateral mass (GHLM) technique on the left and the posterior arch lateral mass (PALM) technique on the right, under fluoroscopic guidance. After screw placement, a CT scan was obtained on each specimen to assess for radiographic screw placement accuracy. Four faculty spine surgeons, blinded to the surgeon who instrumented the cadaver, independently graded the quality of screw placement using a modified Upendra classification.
Of the 17 specimens, the C-2 nerve root was anatomically impinged in 13 (76.5%) of the specimens. The GHLM technique was graded Type 1 or 2, which is considered “acceptable,” in 12 specimens (70.6%), and graded Type 3 or 4 (“unacceptable”) in 5 specimens (29.4%). In contrast, the PALM technique had 17 (100%) of 17 graded Type 1 or 2 (p = 0.015). There were no vertebral artery injuries found in either technique. All screw violations occurred in the medial direction.
The PALM technique showed statistically fewer medial penetrations than the GHLM technique in this study. The reason for this is not clear, but may stem from a more angulated ”up-and-in” screw direction necessary with a lower starting point.