European Spine Journal

, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp 184–201 | Cite as

A comprehensive classification of thoracic and lumbar injuries

  • F. Magerl
  • M. Aebi
  • S. D. Gertzbein
  • J. Harms
  • S. Nazarian
Original Articles


In view of the current level of knowledge and the numerous treatment possibilities, none of the existing classification systems of thoracic and lumbar injuries is completely satisfactory. As a result of more than a decade of consideration of the subject matter and a review of 1445 consecutive thoracolumbar injuries, a comprehensive classification of thoracic and lumbar injuries is proposed. The classification is primarily based on pathomorphological criteria. Categories are established according to the main mechanism of injury, pathomorphological uniformity, and in consideration of prognostic aspects regarding healing potential. The classification reflects a progressive scale of morphological damage by which the degree of instability is determined. The severity of the injury in terms of instability is expressed by its ranking within the classification system. A simple grid, the 3-3-3 scheme of the AO fracture classification, was used in grouping the injuries. This grid consists of three types: A, B, and C. Every type has three groups, each of which contains three subgroups with specifications. The types have a fundamental injury pattern which is determined by the three most important mechanisms acting on the spine: compression, distraction, and axial torque. Type A (vertebral body compression) focuses on injury patterns of the vertebral body. Type B injuries (anterior and posterior element injuries with distraction) are characterized by transverse disruption either anteriorly or posteriorly. Type C lesions (anterior and posterior element injuries with rotation) describe injury patterns resulting from axial torque. The latter are most often superimposed on either type A or type B lesions. Morphological criteria are predominantly used for further subdivision of the injuries. Severity progresses from type A through type C as well as within the types, groups, and further subdivisions. The 1445 cases were analyzed with regard to the level of the main injury, the frequency of types and groups, and the incidence of neurological deficit. Most injuries occurred around the thoracolumbar junction. The upper and lower end of the thoracolumbar spine and the T 10 level were most infrequently injured. Type A fractures were found in 66.1 %, type B in 14.5%, and type C in 19.4% of the cases. Stable type Al fractures accounted for 34.7% of the total. Some injury patterns are typical for certain sections of the thoracolumbar spine and others for age groups. The neurological deficit, ranging from complete paraplegia to a single root lesion, was evaluated in 1212 cases. The overall incidence was 22% and increased significantly from type to type: neurological deficit was present in 14% of type A, 32% of type B, and 55% of type C lesions. Only 2% of the Al and 4% of the A2 fractures showed any neurological deficit. The classification is comprehensive as almost any injury can be itemized according to easily recognizable and consistent radiographic and clinical findings. Every injury can be defined alphanumerically or by a descriptive name. The classification can, however, also be used in an abbreviated form without impairment of the information most important for clinical practice. Identification of the fundamental nature of an injury is facilitated by a simple algorithm. Recognizing the nature of the injury, its degree of instability, and prognostic aspects are decisive for the choice of the most appropriate treatment. Experience has shown that the new classification is especially useful in this respect.

Key words

Thoracic spine Lumbar spine Epidemiology 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • F. Magerl
    • 1
  • M. Aebi
    • 2
  • S. D. Gertzbein
    • 3
  • J. Harms
    • 4
  • S. Nazarian
    • 5
  1. 1.Klinik für Orthopädische Chirurgie, KantonsspitalSt. GallenSwitzerland
  2. 2.Division of Orthopaedic SurgeryMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Texas Back InstituteCrawfordUSA
  4. 4.Rehabilitationskrankenhaus, Karlsbad-LangensteinbachGermany
  5. 5.Hôspital de la ConceptionMarseilleFrance

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