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Decreased Bone Mineral Density Does Not Increase Sacral Fracture Risk in Spinal Fusion Patients

New Orleans, LA—March 6, 2018

For years, bone mineral density (BMD) -- a measure of how much actual bone mineral a bone contains -- has been used to determine which patients are candidates for spinal surgery and which are not. It was assumed that a low BMD, found in patients with osteoporosis, was a risk factor for vertebral fractures following spinal procedures.

However, a study presented today at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) 2018 Annual Meeting suggests that, at least in one type of spinal surgery, this may not be the case.

The authors report that in patients undergoing spinal fusions in their lower spine – known as the sacral region – a lower BMD alone may not increase the risk of sacral vertebral fractures. The findings suggest that surgeons should evaluate patients across a whole range of bone fracture risk factors, and not necessarily be reassured when a patient has a normal BMD.

"We better understand that there are many factors that impact bone 'quality'," says Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) spinal surgeon Alexander P. Hughes, MD, who served as senior author on the new study. "It turns out that the mineral density measurement of bone alone may be less important than other factors. BMD is a measure of bone quantity, not quality." Among other factors that could increase sacral fracture risk are how the body maintains collagen, a connective tissue that helps maintain bone elasticity.

Dr. Hughes points out that while sacral fractures are rare, impacting less than 1 percent of fusion patients, when they do occur they can have serious consequences.

"Sacral fractures not only mean patients will have to undergo revision surgeries, they also may develop neurologic complications," he explains.

Dr. Hughes explains that previous data supporting a link between spinal surgeries and sacral fractures was purely anecdotal, and that some prior reports suggested that only a small percentage of patients sustaining sacral fractures after fusion surgery had osteoporosis. To test whether or not this is case, he and a team of his HSS colleagues reviewed BMD scores in patients who had experienced sacral fractures following a spinal fusion surgery and those who had not. They also employed an experimental application of qCT that allows an assessment of the BMD of the sacrum itself.  Neither decreased global BMD or sacral BMD was found to differ significantly between the two groups.

The new study is part of a larger research initiative at HSS aimed at better understanding and treating disorders of the bone and other connective tissues. Dr. Hughes feels the findings could have implications for other spinal surgeries and orthopedic procedures as well.

"This could have direct implications on surgical decision making,” he says. “We’re realizing that bone mineral density has its limitations."


About HSS | Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the ninth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S.News & World Report (2018-2019). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures. People from all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries travelled to receive care at HSS. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The culture of innovation is accelerating at HSS as 130 new idea submissions were made to the Global Innovation Institute in 2017 (almost 3x the submissions in 2015). The HSS Education Institute is the world’s leading provider of education on the topic on musculoskeletal health, with its online learning platform offering more than 600 courses to more than 21,000 medical professional members worldwide. Through HSS Global Ventures, the institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.


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