Free Hand Pedicle Screw Placement in the Thoracic Spine: Is it Safe

Yongjung J. Kim, Lawrence G. Lenke, Keith H. Bridwell, Yongsun S. Cho, K. Daniel Riew

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

657 Scopus citations


Study Design. A retrospective study. Objective. To evaluate the safety of a free hand technique of pedicle screw placement in the thoracic spine at a single institution over a 10-year experience. Summary of Background Data. Thoracic pedicle screw fixation techniques are still controversial for thoracic deformities because of possible complications including neurologic. Materials and Methods. Three hundred ninety-four consecutive patients who underwent posterior stabilization utilizing 3204 transpedicular thoracic screws by 2 surgeons from 1992 to 2002 were analyzed. The mean age was 27 + 10 years (range 5 + 3-87 + 0 years) at the time of surgery. Etiologic diagnoses were: scoliosis in 273, kyphosis in 53, other spinal disease in 68. Pedicle screws were inserted using a free hand technique similar to that used in the lumbar spine in which anatomic landmarks and specific entry sites were used to guide the surgeon. A 2-mm tip pedicle probe was carefully advanced free hand down the pedicle into the body. Careful palpation of all bony borders (floor and four pedicle walls) was performed before and after tapping. Next, the screw was placed, followed by neurophysiologic (screw stimulation with rectus abdominus muscle recording) and radiographic (anteroposterior and lateral) confirmation. An independent spine surgeon using medical records and roentgenograms taken during treatment and follow-up reviewed all the patients. Results. The number of the screws inserted at each level were as follows (total n = 3204): T1, n = 13; T2, n = 60; T3, n = 192; T4, n = 275; T5, n = 279; T6, n = 240; T7, n = 230; T8, n = 253; T9, n = 259; T10, n = 341; T11, n = 488: T12, n = 572. Five hundred seventy-seven screws inserted into the deformed thoracic spine were randomly evaluated by thoracic computed tomography scan to assess for screw position. Thirty-six screws (6.2%) were inserted with moderate cortical perforation, which meant the central line of the pedicle screw was out of the outer cortex of the pedicle wall and included 10 screws (1.7%) that violated the medial wall. There were no screws (out of the entire study group of 3204) with any neurologic, vascular, or visceral complications with up to 10 years follow-up. Conclusions. The free hand technique of thoracic pedicle screw placement performed in a step-wise, consistent, and compulsive manner is an accurate, reliable, and safe method of insertion to treat a variety of spinal disorders, including spinal deformity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-342
Number of pages10
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2004


  • Free hand technique
  • Neurophysiologic monitoring
  • Pedicle screws
  • Thoracic pedicle


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