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  • Author or Editor: Zachary Tan x
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Zachary Tan, Stewart McLachlin, Cari Whyne and Joel Finkelstein


The cortical bone trajectory (CBT) technique for pedicle screw placement has gained popularity among spinal surgeons. It has been shown biomechanically to provide better fixation and improved pullout strength compared to a traditional pedicle screw trajectory. The CBT technique also allows for a less invasive approach for fusion and may have lower incidence of adjacent-level disease. A limitation of the current CBT technique is a lack of readily identifiable and reproducible visual landmarks to guide freehand CBT screw placement in comparison to the well-defined identifiable landmarks for traditional pedicle screw insertion. The goal of this study was to validate a safe and intuitive freehand technique for placement of CBT screws based on optimization of virtual CBT screw placement using anatomical landmarks in the lumbar spine. The authors hypothesized that virtual identification of anatomical landmarks on 3D models of the lumbar spine generated from CT scans would translate to a safe intraoperative freehand technique.


Customized, open-source medical imaging and visualization software (3D Slicer) was used in this study to develop a workflow for virtual simulation of lumbar CBT screw insertion. First, in an ex vivo study, 20 anonymous CT image series of normal and degenerative lumbar spines and virtual screw insertion were conducted to place CBT screws bilaterally in the L1–5 vertebrae for each image volume. The optimal safe CBT trajectory was created by maximizing both the screw length and the cortical bone contact with the screw. Easily identifiable anatomical surface landmarks for the start point and trajectory that best allowed the reproducible idealized screw position were determined. An in vivo validation of the determined landmarks from the ex vivo study was then performed in 10 patients. Placement of virtual “test” cortical bone trajectory screws was simulated with the surgeon blinded to the real-time image-guided navigation, and the placement was evaluated. The surgeon then placed the definitive screw using image guidance.


From the ex vivo study, the optimized technique and landmarks were similar in the L1–4 vertebrae, whereas the L5 optimized technique was distinct. The in vivo validation yielded ideal, safe, and unsafe screws in 62%, 16%, and 22% of cases, respectively. A common reason for the nonidealized trajectories was the obscuration of patient anatomy secondary to severe degenerative changes.


CBT screws were placed ideally or safely 78% of the time in a virtual simulation model. A 22% rate of unsafe freehand trajectories suggests that the CBT technique requires use of image-guided navigation or x-ray guidance and that reliable freehand CBT screw insertion based on anatomical landmarks is not reliably feasible in the lumbar spine.