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Unusual spine anatomy contributing to wrong level spine surgery: a case report and recommendations for decreasing the risk of preventable 'never events'

Author(s): Lindley Emily M | Botolin Sergiu | Burger Evalina L | Patel Vikas V

Journal: Patient Safety in Surgery
ISSN 1754-9493

Volume: 5;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 33;
Date: 2011;
Original page

Keywords: Wrong site surgery | wrong level spine surgery | cervical ribs | abnormal segmentation | never event

Abstract Background Wrong site surgery is one of five surgical "Never Events," which include performing surgery on the incorrect side or incorrect site, performing the wrong procedure, performing surgery on the wrong patient, unintended retention of a foreign object in a patient, and intraoperative/immediate postoperative death in an ASA Class I patient. In the spine, wrong site surgery occurs when a procedure is performed on an unintended vertebral level. Despite the efforts of national safety protocols, literature suggests that the risk for wrong level spine surgery remains problematic. Case Presentation A 34-year-old male was referred to us to evaluate his persistent thoracic pain following right-sided microdiscectomy at T7-8 at an outside institution. Postoperative imaging showed the continued presence of a herniated disc at T7-8 and evidence of a microdiscectomy at the level immediately above. The possibility that wrong level surgery had occurred was discussed with the patient and revision surgery was planned. During surgery, the site of the previous laminectomy was clearly visualized; however, we also experienced confusion when verifying the level of the previous surgery. We ultimately used the previous laminectomy site as a landmark for identifying and treating the correct pathologic level. Postoperative consultation with Musculoskeletal Radiology revealed the patient had two abnormalities in his spinal anatomy that made intraoperative counting of levels inaccurate, including a pair of cervical ribs at C7 and the absence of a pair of thoracic ribs. Conclusion This case highlights the importance of strict adherence to a preoperative method of vertebral labeling that focuses on the landmarks used to label a pathologic disc space, rather than simply relying on the reference to a particular level. That is, by designating the pathological level as the disc space associated with the fourth rib up from the last rib-bearing vertebrae, rather than calling it "T7-8", then the correct level can be found intraoperatively even in the case of abnormal segmentation. We recommend working closely with radiology during preoperative planning to identify unusual anatomy that may have been overlooked. We also recommend that radiology colleagues use the same system of identifying pathological levels when dictating their reports. Together, these strategies can reduce the risk of wrong level surgery and increase patient safety.
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