Can surgery improve neurological function in penetrating spinal injury? A review of the military and civilian literature and treatment recommendations for military neurosurgeons.

Paul Klimo, Brian T. Ragel, Michael Rosner, Wayne Gluf, Randall McCafferty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECT: Penetrating spinal injury (PSI), although an infrequent injury in the civilian population, is not an infrequent injury in military conflicts. Throughout military history, the role of surgery in the treatment of PSI has been controversial. The US is currently involved in 2 military campaigns, the hallmark of both being the widespread use of various explosive devices. The authors reviewed the evidence for or against the use of decompressive laminectomy to treat PSI to provide a triservice (US Army, Navy, and Air Force) consensus and treatment recommendations for military neurosurgeons and spine surgeons. METHODS: A US National Library of Medicine PubMed database search that identified all literature dealing with acute management of PSI from military conflicts and civilian urban trauma centers in the post-Vietnam War period was undertaken. RESULTS: Nineteen retrospective case series (11 military and 8 civilian) met the study criteria. Eleven military articles covered a 20-year time span that included 782 patients who suffered either gunshot or blast-related projectile wounds. Four papers included sufficient data that analyzed the effectiveness of surgery compared with nonoperative management, 6 papers concluded that surgery was of no benefit, 2 papers indicated that surgery did have a role, and 3 papers made no comment. Eight civilian articles covered a 9-year time span that included 653 patients with spinal gunshot wounds. Two articles lacked any comparative data because of treatment bias. Two papers concluded that decompressive laminectomy had a beneficial role, 1 paper favored the removal of intracanal bullets between T-12 and L-4, and 5 papers indicated that surgery was of no benefit. CONCLUSIONS: Based on the authors' military and civilian PubMed literature search, most of the evidence suggests that decompressive laminectomy does not improve neurological function in patients with PSI. However, there are serious methodological shortcomings in both literature groups. For this and other reasons, neurosurgeons from the US Air Force, Army, and Navy collectively believe that decompression should still be considered for any patient with an incomplete neurological injury and continued spinal canal compromise, ideally within 24-48 hours of injury; the patient should be stabilized concurrently if it is believed that the spinal injury is unstable. The authors recognize the highly controversial nature of this topic and hope that this literature review and the proposed treatment recommendations will be a valuable resource for deployed neurosurgeons. Ultimately, the deployed neurosurgeon must make the final treatment decision based on his or her opinion of the literature, individual abilities, and facility resources available.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalNeurosurgical Focus
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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