Vertebral Body Reconstruction in the Thoracic Spine

Published on 02/04/2015 by admin

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Chapter 37 Vertebral Body Reconstruction in the Thoracic Spine


The purpose of vertebral body reconstruction is to restore anterior and middle column weight-bearing function and to obtain the intended bony fusion.1 Solid body fusion appears to be the most reliable means to achieve this goal, but fibrous union also may provide a long-term favorable clinical outcome. Several instrumentation options can be used depending on the extent of the vertebral body resection.


When graft material is considered as a substitute for the vertebral body, several points should be contemplated: biological tolerance, mechanical features, and radiological artifact. In the aspect of material, several options, such as metal (titanium alloys, steel-based alloys), acrylic cement, ceramic implants, and carbon fiber cage, are considered.


Autograft yields very high rates of fusion, as long as mechanical stability is provided. It shows rapid healing and modulus similar to vertebral body. After fusion has occurred, the construct shows extreme durability (Fig. 37-1). Even though the fusion bed is irradiated, the fusion rate is very good. When survival is expected to be more than 6 months, autograft is the most favored graft material. However, in anterior reconstruction involving at least one vertebral body and its adjacent discs in thoracic and lumbar spine, the size of the defect to be filled necessitates the harvesting of a large amount of autograft, often associated with a significant morbidity at the graft harvesting sites. Furthermore, the mechanical resistance of such a large reconstruction with autograft is usually not sufficient to allow full weight-bearing without external orthosis. Other problems are pseudoarthrosis, necrosis after adjuvant radiation, transplant loosening, and morbidity at the donor site.


The rib is commonly used as a bone graft in surgery of the anterior spine. The advantage of the rib is that it is easily used as a pediculated vascularized graft when it is transferred to the anterior vertebrae. The contraindications of the vascularized rib graft are infection, osteoporosis, and radiation history.

During the thoracic approach, the periosteum of the rib is neither divided nor rasped. Intercostal muscles are divided above and below the selected rib to protect the periosteum and the vessels running below the distal edge of the rib (Fig. 37-2). At the front, vessels are ligated and divided along with the rib. At the back, the periosteum is incised all around the posterior arch of the rib and is rasped with care, pushing away the pedicle in one block. The rib is elevated with its accompanying artery and vein. The intercostal nerve is separated from the vascularized rib. The vascularized rib is isolated. Anteriorly the end is near the costochondral junction, and posteriorly it is near the costal angle. The rib is wrapped up in a wet pad. The mean length of the resected segment is about 10 cm.

The length of the useful segment can vary according to the number of levels to be fused. In thoracic levels, the length of 10–12 cm can cover four or five segments. The average length of the vascular pedicular segment is 5–6 cm. The useful segment usually has a 40-degree curvature (Fig. 37-3).

The useful segment of the rib is mobilized around the vascular pedicle. The surgeons must be sure that the pedicle is not twisted, elongated, or tight, and not folded (Fig. 37-4). The whole length of the rib is sectioned into two or three pieces. The length of each fragment adjusts to match the defect in the corpectomy. The rib is folded cautiously to prevent injury to the accompanying vessel (Fig. 37-5). The natural progression of non-vascularized bone graft is a first stage of necrosis, then a second stage of creeping substitution. When the vascularized graft is used, the creeping substitution is avoided, and fusion and bone healing are obtained within 3 months.


Recent studies on the titanium mesh cage (TMC) have reported excellent stability rates compared with the traditional tricortical iliac crest grafts or fibular grafts because they provide immediate immobilization and a larger healing surface when packed with cancellous bone (Fig. 37-6).2 The mesh cage allows anchoring by bone because its end tip has spikes. Unlike bone grafts, both ends of a titanium mesh cage have sharp edges that allow it to be anchored into the adjacent vertebral bodies, which results in torsional stability (Fig. 37-7). Early stabilization could be achieved by making the cage ends “bite” into the adjacent vertebral bodies.

Disadvantages include cost, difficulty in assessing fusion on plain radiographs, difficulty in surgical revision, stress shielding that may affect fusion, and the potential for soft-tissue injury. Subsidence can take place into the adjacent vertebral body, and the mesh’s sharp teeth can penetrate the endplate and accelerate graft subsidence. The mean settling ratio is reported to be 4.35% of cage length at 1 year.

It is postulated that preservation of the endplates may prevent potential telescoping of the graft when placing cages.3 End caps, designed to prevent telescoping, increase the cage’s maximum load-bearing ability but do not affect the construct’s stiffness. They may interfere with the bone-bone interface or the transference of stress lines, which is needed for fusion, through the TMC. The plate/TMC combination results in the strongest, stiffest construct, preventing flexion and extension, rotation, and parallelogram effect. The inability of plain radiography to evaluate bone growth within the TMC can be overcome with computed tomography (CT) scanning. The presence or extent of bone growth within the TMC can be determined from CT scanning. On CT images, hyperdense areas are seen, which suggests bone growth within the TMC, and indirect evidence of fusion is presumed based on radiographically documented stability. The TMC/plate construct has been safe and effective as a vertebral replacement in the spine.