Purpose: Neurophysiological monitoring aims to improve the safety of pedicle screw placement, but few quantitative studies assess specificity and sensitivity. In this study, screw placement within the pedicle is measured (post-op CT scan, horizontal and vertical distance from the screw edge to the surface of the pedicle) and correlated with intraoperative neurophysiological stimulation thresholds.
Methods: A single surgeon placed 68 thoracic and 136 lumbar screws in 30 consecutive patients during instrumented fusion under EMG control. The female to male ratio was 1.6 and the average age was 61.3 years (SD 17.7). Radiological measurements, blinded to stimulation threshold, were done on reformatted CT reconstructions using OsiriX software. A standard deviation of the screw position of 2.8 mm was determined from pilot measurements, and a 1 mm of screw-pedicle edge distance was considered as a difference of interest (standardised difference of 0.35) leading to a power of the study of 75 % (significance level 0.05).
Results: Correct placement and stimulation thresholds above 10 mA were found in 71 % of screws. Twenty-two percent of screws caused cortical breach, 80 % of these had stimulation thresholds above 10 mA (sensitivity 20 %, specificity 90 %). True prediction of correct position of the screw was more frequent for lumbar than for thoracic screws.
Conclusion: A screw stimulation threshold of >10 mA does not indicate correct pedicle screw placement. A hypothesised gradual decrease of screw stimulation thresholds was not observed as screw placement approaches the nerve root. Aside from a robust threshold of 2 mA indicating direct contact with nervous tissue, a secondary threshold appears to depend on patients' pathology and surgical conditions.