The aim of this study was to define the expected functional and health-related quality of life outcomes following common thoracolumbar injuries on the basis of consensus expert opinion and the best available literature. Patient expectations are primarily determined by the information provided by health care professionals, and these expectations have been shown to influence outcome in various medical and surgical conditions. This paper presents Part 2 of a multiphase study designed to investigate the impact of patient expectations on outcomes following spinal injury. Part 1 demonstrated substantial variability in the information surgeons are communicating to patients. Defining the expected outcomes following thoracolumbar injury would allow further analysis of this relationship and enable surgeons to more accurately and consistently inform patients.
Expert opinion was assembled by distributing questionnaires comprising 4 cases representative of common thoracolumbar injuries to members of the Spine Trauma Study Group (STSG). The 4 cases included a thoracolumbar junction burst fracture treated nonoperatively or with posterior transpedicular instrumentation, a low lumbar (L-4) burst fracture treated nonoperatively, and a thoracolumbar junction flexion-distraction injury managed with posterior fusion. For each case, 5 questions about expected outcomes were posed. The questions related to the proportion of patients who are pain free, the proportion who have regained full range of motion, and the patients' recreational activity restrictions and personal care and social life limitations, all at 1 year following injury, as well as the timing of return to work and length of hospital stay. Responses were analyzed and combined with the results of a systematic literature review on the same injuries to define the expected outcomes.
The literature review identified 38 appropriate studies that met the preset inclusion criteria. Published data were available for all injuries, but not all outcomes were available for each type of injury. The survey was completed by 31 (57%) of 53 surgeons representing 24 trauma centers across North America (15), Europe (5), India (1), Mexico (1), Japan (1) and Israel (1). Consensus expert opinion supplemented the available literature and was used exclusively when published data were lacking.
For example, 1 year following cast or brace treatment of a thoracolumbar burst fracture, the expected outcomes include a 40% chance of being pain free, a 70% chance of regaining pre-injury range of motion, and an expected ability to participate in high-impact exercise and contact sport with no or minimal limitation. Consensus expert opinion predicts reemployment within 4–6 months. The length of inpatient stay averages 4–5 days.
This synthesis of the best available literature and consensus opinion of surgeons with extensive clinical experience in spine trauma reflects the optimal methodology for determining functional prognosis after thoracolumbar trauma. By providing consistent, accurate information surgeons will help patients develop realistic expectations and potentially optimize outcomes.