Thoracolumbar flexion-distraction injuries: Associated morbidity and neurological outcomes

Jens R. Chapman, Julie Agel, Gregory Jurkovich, Carlo Bellabarba

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


STUDY DESIGN. Retrospective study, prospectively gathered databases. OBJECTIVE. To assess abdominal comorbidities, missed injuries, and complications associated with thoracolumbar flexion-distraction injuries (FDI). SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA. From 1989 to 2003, 153 patients with flexion-distraction type injuries were identified. Predominant injury mechanisms consisted of motor vehicle crashes, falls, and motorcycle crashes. METHODS. Spinal injuries were categorized by region, injury pattern, American Spinal Injury Association grade, and motor score. Diagnostic methods, delayed diagnoses, and complications were recorded and compared with variables of spinal injury, abdominal injury, and neurologic outcome. Treatment variables included nonoperative care, posterior surgery alone, anterior surgery alone, or combination treatment. Primary outcomes were neurologic status, unintended secondary procedures, complications, and kyphosis angle. RESULTS. Spinal cord injury (SCI) was found in 37 of 151 patients (25%). SCI was correlated with high-grade posterior element dissociation. Intra-abdominal injury (IAI) was found in 46 of 151 of patients (30%). There was a statistically significant correlation between presence of FDI and IAI in the lumbar (L2-L4) region. There was a 3.9% incidence of delayed diagnosis of FDI and a 0.9% incidence of delayed diagnosis of IAI. Presence of a "lapbelt-sign" had a positive predictive value of 0.69 and a negative predictive value of 0.91 for IAI. Presence of a lumbar injury due to a motor vehicle crash in the presence of a lapbelt sign was positively associated with IAI. There was no increase in complications in the subpopulation of patients with concurrent SCI and FDI. CONCLUSION. Both IAI and SCI remain commonly associated with FDI of the thoracolumbar spinal column. The presence of an abdominal wall contusion (lapbelt sign) is a strong indicator of IAI. Adherence to an established trauma algorithm can minimize the risk of delayed diagnosis. Disruption of an established work-up paradigm, however, can lead to potentially life and spinal cord threatening complications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)648-657
Number of pages10
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 1 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Abdominal injuries
  • Chance injury
  • Delay in diagnosis
  • Flexion-distraction injuries
  • Seatbelt sign
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Spine trauma
  • Thoracolumbar fracture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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