Esophageal perforation is a rare but well-known complication of anterior cervical spine surgery. The authors performed a systematic review of the literature to evaluate symptomatology, direct causes, repair methods, and associated complications of esophageal injury.
A PubMed search that adhered to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines included relevant clinical studies and case reports (articles written in the English language that included humans as subjects) that reported patients who underwent anterior spinal surgery and sustained some form of esophageal perforation. Available data on clinical presentation, the surgical procedure performed, outcome measures, and other individual variables were abstracted from 1980 through 2015.
The PubMed search yielded 65 articles with 153 patients (mean age 44.7 years; range 14–85 years) who underwent anterior spinal surgery and sustained esophageal perforation, either during surgery or in a delayed fashion. The most common indications for initial anterior cervical spine surgery in these cases were vertebral fracture/dislocation (n = 77), spondylotic myelopathy (n = 15), and nucleus pulposus herniation (n = 10). The most commonly involved spinal levels were C5–6 (n = 51) and C6–7 (n = 39). The most common presenting symptoms included dysphagia (n =63), fever (n = 24), neck swelling (n = 23), and wound leakage (n = 18). The etiology of esophageal perforation included hardware failure (n = 31), hardware erosion (n = 23), and intraoperative injury (n = 14). The imaging modalities used to identify the esophageal perforations included modified contrast dye swallow studies, CT, endoscopy, plain radiography, and MRI. Esophageal repair was most commonly achieved using a modified muscle flap, as well as with primary closure. Outcomes measured in the literature were often defined by the time to oral intake following esophageal repair. Complications included pneumonia (n = 6), mediastinitis (n = 4), osteomyelitis (n = 3), sepsis (n = 3), acute respiratory distress syndrome (n = 2), and recurrent laryngeal nerve damage (n = 1). The mortality rate of esophageal perforation in the analysis was 3.92% (6 of 153 reported patients).
Esophageal perforation after anterior cervical spine surgery is a rare complication. This systematic review demonstrates that these perforations can be stratified into 3 categories based on the timing of symptomatic onset: intraoperative, early postoperative (within 30 days of anterior spinal surgery), and delayed. The most common source of esophageal injury is hardware erosion or migration, each of which may vary in their time to symptomatic manifestation.