Analysis of the techniques for thoracic- and lumbar-level localization during posterior spine surgery and the occurrence of wrong-level surgery: Results from a national survey

Jillian E. Mayer, Rajan P. Dang, Guillermo F. Duarte Prieto, Samuel K. Cho, Sheeraz A. Qureshi, Andrew C. Hecht

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Background context Despite the frequency with which surgeons perform posterior spinal surgery and the precautions against wrong-site surgery, operations on incorrect levels still occur. Wrong-level exposure is documented in 0.32% to 15% of cases. Additionally, there is little consensus as to what is the most accurate method for localizing the correct spinal level. Purpose The purpose of this study is to investigate the most commonly used localization methods and their association with wrong-level surgery, to determine the prevalence of wrong-level localization, and to identify circumstances commonly associated with wrong-level surgery, and to offer recommendations that may reduce the incidence of these errors. Study design/setting This was an online survey study that was distributed to North American Spine Society (NASS) members (including both orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons) the survey was sent as a Web link within an e-mail. Patient sample A total of 2,338 surgeons received the survey, 532 opened the survey, and 173 completed it (7.4% response rate) the survey was only sent once, as recommended by NASS. Of those that responded, 72% (124 of 173) were orthopedic surgeons, 28% (49 of 173) were neurosurgeons, and 73% (126 of 173) were spine fellowship trained. Outcome measures We sought to investigate self-reported localization methods that are most commonly used (both anatomic landmarks and imaging techniques), the prevalence of wrong-level surgery, and any correlations between localization method and wrong-level surgery. Methods An eight-question anonymous survey was distributed to members of NASS, including orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons there was no pilot testing or validation performed for this survey the survey was sent as a Web link within an e-mail. Some questions asked surgeons to select as many responses as applicable, and others allowed surgeons to describe in detail any cases of wrong-level surgery. This study neither requires nor receives funding; additionally, no conflicts of interests were reported. Results Fluoroscopy was the most commonly used imaging technique for thoracic and lumbar surgeries (89% and 86%, respectively), followed by plain radiographs (54% and 58%, respectively). Surgeons were allowed to select as many responses as applicable, and 76 surgeons reported using both plain radiographs and fluoroscopy the facet joint with corresponding pedicle was the most commonly used anatomic landmark for localization of thoracic and lumbar surgeries (67% and 59%, respectively), followed by the spinous process (49% and 52%, respectively). Sixty-eight percent of surgeons admitted to wrong-level localization, some of which were rectified intraoperatively, during their careers. Fifty-six percent of these surgeons reported using plain radiographs and 44% used fluoroscopy when the errors occurred. Common sources of preoperative errors included failure to visualize known reference points, recognize unconventional spinal anatomy, and adequately visualize the level because of large body habitus. Common sources of intraoperative errors included poor communication, failure to relocalize after exposure, and poor counting methods. Conclusions Despite the variety of localization modalities, most surgeons use only a few. Whereas wrong-level localization is relatively rare, the ideal frequency is never there is no standard approach that will entirely eliminate these mistakes; however, using a localization time out and increasing awareness of common sources of error may help decrease the incidence of wrong-level spine surgery.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)741-748
Number of pages8
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2014


  • Intraoperative imaging
  • Preoperative imaging
  • Spine-level localization
  • Surgery outcomes
  • Wrong-level surgery


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