Gunshot injuries of the spine

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Journal Title

South African Journal of Surgery

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University of Cape Town

The Acute Spinal Injury Unit, relocated from Conradie Hospital to Groote Schuur Hospital in mid-2003, admitted 162 patients in the first year of its existence. A large number of these injuries were the result of interpersonal violence, particularly gunshot wounds. Aim. To review patients with gunshot injuries to the spine, with reference to neurological injury, associated injuries, need for surgery and complications. Methods. A comprehensive database is maintained to collect data on all spinal injury admissions. These data, as well as case notes and X-rays, were reviewed for all gunshot spine patients admitted to the Acute Spinal Injury Unit over a year. Forty-nine patients were identified. Thirty-eight were male and 11 female with an average age of 27.5 years (range 15 - 51 ± 8.53). The average stay in the acute unit was 30 (4 - 109 ± 28) days. Results. The spinal injury was complete in 38 and incomplete in 8, with 3 having no neurological deficit. The level was cervical in 13, thoracic in 24 and lumbar in 12. Only 9 patients improved neurologically. The spine was considered stable in 43 cases. Stabilisation was performed in the 6 unstable cases. The bullets were removed in 11 cases as they were in the canal. There were 55 significant associated injuries, viz. 14 haemo-pneumothoraces, 16 abdominal visceral injuries, 3 vascular injuries, 4 injuries of the brachial plexus and 3 of the oesophagus, 2 tracheal injuries, 1 soft palate injury and 11 non-spinal fractures. Complications included 3 deaths and discitis in 3 cases, pneumonia in 6 and pressure sores in 6. Conclusion. Gunshot injuries of the spine are a prevalent and resource-intensive cause of paralysis. There is a high incidence of permanent severe neurological deficit, but usually the spine remains mechanically stable. Most of the management revolves around the associated injuries and consequences of the neurological deficit.