Background: Cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) has a well-established association with a high risk of respiratory complications. We sought to determine whether high-thoracic (HT) SCI was associated with a similar increased risk of respiratory complications and death.
Methods: This was a retrospective cohort study of all adult patients with thoracolumbar injuries entered into the Pennsylvania Trauma System Foundation registry between January 1993 and December 2002. Records were reviewed for the documentation of respiratory complications (intubation, tracheostomy, bronchoscopy, pneumonia) and mortality. The data were then evaluated controlling for age, sex, Glasgow Coma Scale, and Injury Severity Score.
Results: In all, 11,080 patients met inclusion criteria: 4,258 patients had thoracic spine fractures and 6,226 patients had lumbar spine fractures, all without SCI; and 596 patients had thoracic SCI (T1 to T6, 231; T7 to T12, 365). Respiratory complications occurred in 51.1% of patients with T1 to T6 SCI (versus 34.5% in T7 to T12 SCI and 27.5% in thoracic fractures). The need for intubation, the risk of pneumonia, and risk of death were significantly greater for patients with T1- to T6-level spinal cord injuries. Among patients with an Injury Severity Score less than 17 (n = 6427), the relative mortality risk was 26.7 times higher among those who developed respiratory complications (9.9% versus 0.4%).
Conclusion: Compared with patients with low thoracic SCI or thoracolumbar fractures, patients with HT-SCI have an increased risk of pneumonia and death. Respiratory complications significantly increase the mortality risk in less severely injured patients. The current findings suggest that HT-SCI patients warrant intensive monitoring and aggressive pulmonary care and attention, similar to that given for patients with cervical SCI.