Facet joints are major stabilizers of cervical motion allowing for effortless and pain-free multidimensional cervical spine movements without significant linear or rotational translation, thus minimizing any chance for spinal cord or nerve root impingement. Unilateral, nondisplaced subaxial facet fractures do not meet the conventional criteria for spinal instability under physiological loads. Limited evidence indicates that even with no or minimal displacement, 20%–80% of these fractures fail nonoperative management. The risk factors for instability in isolated nondisplaced subaxial facet fractures remain uncertain. In this retrospective study of prospectively collected data, the authors attempted to identify the predictors of failure in the management of isolated, nondisplaced subaxial facet fractures admitted to their Level I trauma center over a 10-year period.
Demographic, clinical, imaging, and follow-up data for 25 patients with unilateral nondisplaced subaxial facet fractures who were managed surgically (n = 10) or nonoperatively (n = 15) were statistically analyzed.
The mean age of the patients was 38 years, 19 were male, and 21 of the fractures were the result of either motor vehicle accidents or falls. The mean motor score on the American Spinal Injury Association scale was 99.2, and the mean Subaxial Injury Classification (SLIC) severity score was 3 (operated 3.5, nonoperated 2.3). Allen mechanistic classification included 22 compressive-extension Stage 1 and 2 distractive-extension Stage 1 fractures. Subaxial facet fractures involved C-7 in 17 patients (68%), C-6 in 7 (28%), and C-3 in 1 (4%). The anatomical plane of fracture through the lateral mass was sagittal in 12 patients, axial in 8, and coronal in 3 patients. Nondisplaced floating lateral mass injuries were noted in 2 patients. The mean instability score, considering 7 components of the discoligamentous complex on MRI, was 3.2 (operated 3.6, nonoperated 3.0). Ten (40%) of 25 patients in this investigation did not have successful management, 9 in the nonoperated and 1 in the operated group (p = 0.018). Unsuccessful management was significantly greater in younger patients (p = 0.0008), possibly indicating selection bias (p = 0.07, Wilcoxon ranksum test). Fracture plane, instability, and SLIC scores did not play a significant role in treatment failure in this study.
In this study, surgery was superior to nonoperative management of isolated, nondisplaced, or minimally displaced subaxial cervical spine facet fractures.