Minimal-access transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) has gained popularity as a method of achieving interbody fusion via a posterior-only approach with the aim of minimizing injury to adjacent tissue. While many studies have reported successful outcomes, questions remain regarding the potential learning curve for successfully completing this procedure. The goal of this study, based on a single resident's experience at the only Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education–approved neurosurgical training center in the US military, was to determine if there is in fact a significant learning curve in performing a minimal-access TLIF.
The authors retrospectively reviewed all minimal-access TLIFs performed by a single neurosurgical resident between July 2006 and January 2008. Minimal-access TLIFs were performed using a tubular retractor inserted via a muscle-dilating exposure to limit approach-related morbidity. The accuracy of screw placement and operative times were assessed.
A single resident/attending team performed 28 minimal-access TLIF procedures. In total, 65 screws were placed at L-2 (1 screw), L-3 (2 screws), L-4 (18 screws), L-5 (27 screws), and S-1 (17 screws) from the resident's perspective. Postoperative CTs were reviewed to determine the accuracy of screw placement. An accuracy of 95.4% (62 of 65) properly placed screws was noted on postoperative imaging. Two screws (at L-5 in the patient in Case 17 and at S-1 in the patient in Case 9) were lateral, and no revision was needed. One screw (at L-4 in Case 24) was 1 mm medial without symptoms or the need for revision. In evaluating the operative times, 2 deformity cases (Grade III spondylolisthesis) were excluded. The average operating time per level in the remaining 26 cases was 113.25 minutes. The average time per level for the first 13 cases was 121.2 minutes; the amount of time decreased to 105.3 minutes for the second group of 13 cases (p = 0.25).
In summary, minimal-access TLIF can be safely performed in a training environment without a significant complication rate due to the expected learning curve.