Lumbar disc height and vertebral Hounsfield units: Association with interbody cage subsidence

Alfred J. Pisano, Donald R. Fredericks*, Theodore Steelman, Cory Riccio, Melvin D. Helgeson, Scott C. Wagner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE Postoperative subsidence of transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) cages can result in loss of lordosis and foraminal height, and potential recurrence of nerve root impingement. The objectives of this study were to determine factors associated with TLIF cage subsidence. Specifically, the authors sought to determine if preoperative disc height compared to cage height could be used to predict TLIF interbody cage subsidence, and if decreased postoperative vertebral Hounsfield units (HUs) predisposed to cage subsidence. METHODS The authors retrospectively reviewed all patients undergoing instrumented TLIF from two institutions between July 2004 and June 2014. The preoperative disc height was measured for the operative and adjacent-level disc on MRI. The difference between cage and disc heights was measured and compared between the subsidence and nonsubsidence groups. The average HUs of the L1 vertebral body were measured on CT scans. RESULTS Eighty-nine patients were identified with complete imaging and follow-up information. Forty-five patients (50.6%) had evidence of interbody cage subsidence on follow-up CT. The average cage subsidence was 5.5 mm (range 2.2-10.8 mm). The average implant height was significantly higher in the subsidence group compared to the nonsubsidence group (12.6 vs 11.2 mm). Additionally, the difference between cage height and preoperative adjacent-level disc height was also significantly larger in the subsidence group (3.8 vs 1.2 mm). First lumbar vertebral body (L1) HUs were significantly higher in the nonsubsidence versus the subsidence group (167.8 vs 137.71 HUs, p = 0.002). Multivariate logistic regression analysis identified suprajacent disc height and L1 HUs to be independent predictors of interbody cage subsidence. Receiver operating characteristic curves identified a suprajacent to cage height difference > 1.3 mm to have a 93.3% sensitivity for cage subsidence. CONCLUSIONS This study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the association between vertebral body HUs and suprajacent disc height with the development of interbody cage subsidence after TLIF. The authors found that patients with lower HUs in the L1 vertebral body were more likely to experience subsidence, regardless of surgical level. Additionally, the study demonstrated that interbody cage height > 1.3 mm above the height of the suprajacent level is an independent risk factor for cage subsidence, with 93.3% sensitivity. These findings suggest that these factors may be utilized to create a template preoperatively for intraoperative cage selection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-6
Number of pages6
JournalNeurosurgical Focus
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Adjacent level
  • Cage subsidence
  • Cage templating
  • Disc height
  • Interbody fusion
  • Osteoporosis


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