Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research®

, Volume 473, Issue 5, pp 1612–1619 | Cite as

Incidence of Surgical Site Infection After Spine Surgery: What Is the Impact of the Definition of Infection?

  • Sjoerd P. F. T. Nota
  • Yvonne Braun
  • David RingEmail author
  • Joseph H. Schwab
Symposium: Patient Safety: Collaboration, Communication, and Physician Leadership



Orthopaedic surgical site infections (SSIs) can delay recovery, add impairments, and decrease quality of life, particularly in patients undergoing spine surgery, in whom SSIs may also be more common. Efforts to prevent and treat SSIs of the spine rely on the identification and registration of these adverse events in large databases. The effective use of these databases to answer clinical questions depends on how the conditions in question, such as infection, are defined in the databases queried, but the degree to which different definitions of infection might cause different risk factors to be identified by those databases has not been evaluated.


The purpose of this study was to determine whether different definitions of SSI identify different risk factors for SSI. Specifically, we compared the International Classification of Diseases, 9th Revision (ICD-9) coding, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) criteria for deep infection, and incision and débridement for infection to determine if each is associated with distinct risk factors for SSI.


In this single-center retrospective study, a sample of 5761 adult patients who had an orthopaedic spine surgery between January 2003 and August 2013 were identified from our institutional database. The mean age of the patients was 56 years (± 16 SD), and slightly more than half were men. We applied three different definitions of infection: ICD-9 code for SSI, the CDC criteria for deep infection, and incision and débridement for infection. Three hundred sixty-one (6%) of the 5761 surgeries received an ICD-9 code for SSI within 90 days of surgery. After review of the medical records of these 361 patients, 216 (4%) met the CDC criteria for deep SSI, and 189 (3%) were taken to the operating room for irrigation and débridement within 180 days of the day of surgery.


We found the Charlson Comorbidity Index, the duration of the operation, obesity, and posterior surgical approach were independently associated with a higher risk of infection for each of the three definitions of SSI. The influence of malnutrition, smoking, specific procedures, and specific surgeons varied by definition of infection. These elements accounted for approximately 6% of the variability in the risk of developing an infection.


The frequency of SSI after spine surgery varied according to the definition of an infection, but the most important risk factors did not. We conclude that large database studies may be better suited for identifying risk factors than for determining absolute numbers of infections.

Level of Evidence

Level III, prognostic study. See Guidelines for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.


Spine Surgery Charlson Comorbidity Index Deep Infection Current Procedural Terminology Code Billing Code 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOC 270 kb)
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Copyright information

© The Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons® 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sjoerd P. F. T. Nota
    • 1
    • 2
  • Yvonne Braun
    • 2
  • David Ring
    • 2
    Email author
  • Joseph H. Schwab
    • 1
  1. 1.Orthopaedic Spine Service & Orthopaedic Oncology Service, Massachusetts General HospitalHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service, Massachusetts General HospitalHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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