Vertebral artery injuries in cervical spine surgery

Spine J. 2014 Aug 1;14(8):1520-5. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2013.09.016. Epub 2013 Oct 10.


Background context: Vertebral artery injuries (VAIs) are rare but serious complications of cervical spine surgery, with the potential to cause catastrophic bleeding, permanent neurologic impairment, and even death. The present literature regarding incidence of this complication largely comprises a single surgeon or small multicenter case series.

Purpose: We sought to gather a large sample of high-volume surgeons to adequately characterize the incidence and risk factors for VAI, management strategies used, and patient outcomes after VAI.

Study design: The study was constructed as a cross-sectional study comprising all cervical spine patients operated on by the members of the international Cervical Spine Research Society (CSRS).

Patient sample: All patients who have undergone cervical spine surgery by a current member of CSRS as of the spring of 2012.

Outcome measures: For each surgeon surveyed, we collected self-reported measures to include the number of cervical cases performed in the surgeon's career, the number of VAIs encountered, the stage of the case during which the injury occurred, the management strategies used, and the overall patient outcome after injury.

Methods: An anonymous 10-question web-based survey was distributed to the members of the CSRS. Statistical analysis was performed using Student t tests for numerical outcomes and chi-squared analysis for categorical variables.

Results: One hundred forty-one CSRS members (of 195 total, 72%) responded to the survey, accounting for a total of 163,324 cervical spine surgeries performed. The overall incidence of VAI was 0.07% (111/163,324). Posterior instrumentation of the upper cervical spine (32.4%), anterior corpectomy (23.4%), and posterior exposure of the cervical spine (11.7%) were the most common stages of the case to result in an injury to the vertebral artery. Discectomy (9%) and anterior exposure of the spine (7.2%) were also common time points for an arterial injury. One-fifth (22/111) of all VAI involved an anomalous course of the vertebral artery. The most common management of VAI was by direct tamponade. The outcomes of VAIs included no permanent sequelae in 90% of patients, permanent neurologic sequelae in 5.5%, and death in 4.5%. Surgeons at academic and private centers had nearly identical rates of VAIs. However, surgeons who had performed 300 or fewer cervical spine surgeries in their career had a VAI incidence of 0.33% compared with 0.06% in those with greater than 300 lifetime cases (p=.028).

Conclusions: The overall incidence of VAI during cervical spine surgery reported from this survey was 0.07%. Less experienced surgeons had a higher rate of VAI compared with their more experienced peers. The results of VAI are highly variable, resulting in no permanent harm most of the time; however, permanent neurologic injury or death occur in 10% of cases.

Keywords: Cervical spine; Complications; Surgery; Vertebral artery injury.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / surgery*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decompression, Surgical / adverse effects
  • Diskectomy / adverse effects
  • Foraminotomy / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Laminectomy / adverse effects
  • Orthopedic Procedures / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Spinal Diseases / surgery*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vascular System Injuries / etiology*
  • Vertebral Artery / abnormalities
  • Vertebral Artery / injuries*