Chance-type fractures of the thoracolumbar spine: imaging analysis in 53 patients

Mark P Bernstein, Stuart E Mirvis, K Shanmuganathan
AJR. American Journal of Roentgenology 2006, 187 (4): 859-68

OBJECTIVE: Chance-type fractures are subtle unstable injuries that are often associated with intraabdominal injuries. CT-based observations made during routine interpretations revealed involvement of a burst component to this fracture pattern and a clue on the transaxial images to its presence. The purpose of this review was to determine how often these features occurred in a retrospective study of a large sample because these findings influence diagnosis and management.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: A retrospective review of all patients identified from the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center trauma registry and IDXRad system diagnosed with flexion-distraction injuries of the thoracolumbar spine over an 8-year period was performed. Three trauma radiologists assessed the admission spinal radiographs, CT studies with multiplanar images, and available MRI examinations. Imaging findings were confirmed by consensus. Abdominopelvic CT studies and surgical reports were reviewed for evidence and type of intraabdominal injury. A literature review of previous similar series was performed.

RESULTS: Fifty-three patients were identified for inclusion in the study. Associated intraabdominal injury occurred in 40% and most commonly involved the bowel and mesentery. A close examination of the fracture patterns on CT revealed that a burst-type fracture with posterior cortex buckling or retropulsion was a common finding (48%). Also, serial transaxial CT images often (76%) showed a gradual loss of definition of the pedicles that we refer to as the "dissolving pedicle" sign. The study showed that the horizontally oriented fracture planes through the posterior elements can often be recognized radiographically, but these fractures can be very subtle.

CONCLUSION: Intraabdominal injuries occurred in 40% of flexion-distraction thoracolumbar fractures in our study cohort, which is slightly lower than previously reported. About half of the patients with this injury displayed a burst-type component that could have a significant influence on surgical management. The dissolving pedicle sign can assist in recognition of this often subtle injury on transaxial CT.

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