Vocal fold paralysis following the anterior approach to the cervical spine

James L. Netterville, Michael J. Koriwchak, Mark Winkle, Mark S. Courey, Robert H. Ossoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


The anterior cervical approach is commonly used for access to the cervical spine. Vocal fold paralysis (VFP), a complication of this approach, is underrepresented in the literature. A review of the database of the Vanderbilt Voice Center revealed 289 patients with VFP, including 16 patients who developed paralysis as a result of an anterior cervical approach. The paralysis was on the right side in all but 1 patient. Compared to patients who developed VFP after thyroidectomy and carotid endarterectomy, patients with VFP after an anterior cervical approach have a higher incidence of aspiration and dysphagia, suggesting the presence of trauma to the superior laryngeal and pharyngeal branches as well as the recurrent branch of the vagus nerve. Two patients had partial return and 1 patient had complete return of vocal fold movement within 10 months. Of the remaining 13 patients, 8 underwent vocal fold medialization with improvement of symptoms. Two patients are 6 and 7 months postinjury and await vocal fold medialization. Two patients are 27 months and 45 months postinjury and are considering vocal fold medialization. The remaining patient was lost to follow-up. An anatomic- geometric analysis of the right and left recurrent laryngeal nerves was performed by using measurements obtained from computed tomography scans of 8 patients with idiopathic unilateral VFP, as well as experience gained through surgical and cadaveric dissections. We conclude 1) the anterior cervical approach may place multiple branches of the vagus nerve at risk; 2) because of anatomic-geometric factors, the right-sided anterior cervical approach may carry a greater risk to the ipsilateral recurrent laryngeal nerve than does the left; and 3) an understanding of the anatomy and geometry presented herein allows relatively safe exposure from either side of the neck.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-91
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • anterior cervical approach
  • cervical spine
  • complications
  • vocal fold paralysis


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