Cervical Spinal Instrumentation

cervical fusion
Fig. 1: Two level anterior
cervical fusion and plating
(larger view)

Often used to help provide considerable stability for the spine after surgery, cervical spinal instrumentation may include:

  • Anterior cervical plates
  • Posterior cervical plates
  • Posterior cervical wiring
  • Anterior cervical interbody cages
  • Post-operative cervical braces.

Anterior Cervical Plates

A small plate can be applied to the front of the spine. This relatively simple procedure can add considerable stability to the spinal construct.

Anterior plates were developed in the 1980s, and their use was initially restricted to long fusions (multi-level fusions). Now more surgeons are also using them for single level procedures.

The addition of an anterior cervical plate during surgery to protect the bone graft and add extra stability to the spine does not add that much to a cervical fusion procedure. The plates are expensive but help provide for earlier return to normal functioning after surgery. It has become much more commonplace for surgeons to use a plate as a routine addition to a cervical fusion.

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The technique is fairly simple.

  • The plate is placed over the front of the cervical spine and bridges the level/s being fused.
  • Following application of the plate, two small screws are placed through the plate and into the vertebral body above and below the fusion.
  • Usually, intraoperative fluoroscopy (live time x-ray) is used to watch the screws and assure their correct placement.

Risks with putting in the plate include:

  • Screw failure or loosening
  • Added risk of infection
  • The screws can be misplaced into the disc space above or below the fusion
  • The screws can be misplaced into the vertebral artery that runs on the side of the spine, which can lead to excessive bleeding or a stroke.

Intraoperative or postoperative complications of plating should be rare.

Posterior Cervical Plates

To add stability to the spine, a posterior cervical plate can be placed on the side of the spine (over the facet joints) and attached to the spine using screws. The screws are angled out into the bone, away from the canal, into what is known as the lateral mass.

Placement of the screws involves some risk to the vertebral artery and the exiting nerve root, so there is added risk (versus wiring procedures), but better fixation of the spine is achieved.

A new procedure and posterior instrumentation system can be used in lieu of a cervical plate. It involves small screws that are then connected by a small rod. It is a more flexible system and is technically easier to apply than a cervical plate, yet still provides excellent posterior fixation and is quite rigid.

Posterior Cervical Wiring

Before plates and rods had been developed, the only fixation system available was wiring. In the lower cervical spine, wiring alone for fixation is rarely done as the newer system is easy to apply and more rigid. Wiring is still done to fuse the upper cervical vertebral segments (C1 to C2). Wiring at this level, if the posterior cervical elements are intact, can provide quite a rigid construct.

Although wiring can be used to fixate the C1-C2 level in most situations, sometimes a posterior facet screw (Magerl screw) is necessary in cases with significant instability. Cases of tumor, fracture, or rheumatoid arthritis can cause such instability. It can also be used if the posterior elements are not intact, or if a patient has already had a failed fixation with posterior wiring.

Anterior Cervical Interbody Cages

Interbody cages can be used in the cervical interbody space to obtain a fusion. There are different varieties (impactable vs. threaded), and they can be made of different substances (carbon fiber, PEEK (polyethylethylketone), or titanium).

There currently is some growing interest on the part of surgeons to stabilize the intervertebral joint without using either allograft or autograft bone. These synthetic cages can be filled with synthetic bone graft substitutes. In some cases, enough stability can be obtained with the useof an interbody cage that supplemental fixation with a cervical plate may not be necessary.

Postoperative Cervical Braces

Because of its relatively small size, the cervical spine is well suited for postoperative bracing. The extent of the surgery typically determines the length of time a collar is recommended after surgery.

Many surgeons will ask patients to wear a collar for:

  • 6 weeks after a one-level fusion
  • Up to 12 weeks after a multi-level fusion.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive evidence in the medical literature that points to exactly how long a cervical collar is necessary, or if it is necessary at all.

With fixation techniques (such as anterior plates), it is probably reasonable to use collars mainly for pain control in the initial postoperative period (since most of the actual stability of the spine is from the bone graft and plate).

Postoperative bracing for a one level fusion with instrumentation is probably not necessary, and increasingly surgeons are limiting the use of a postoperative brace or even eliminating its use.

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