Tapping insertional torque allows prediction for better pedicle screw fixation and optimal screw size selection

Melvin D. Helgeson, Daniel G. Kang, Ronald A. Lehman*, Anton E. Dmitriev, Scott J. Luhmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Background context: There is currently no reliable technique for intraoperative assessment of pedicle screw fixation strength and optimal screw size. Several studies have evaluated pedicle screw insertional torque (IT) and its direct correlation with pullout strength. However, there is limited clinical application with pedicle screw IT as it must be measured during screw placement and rarely causes the spine surgeon to change screw size. To date, no study has evaluated tapping IT, which precedes screw insertion, and its ability to predict pedicle screw pullout strength. Purpose: The objective of this study was to investigate tapping IT and its ability to predict pedicle screw pullout strength and optimal screw size. Study design: In vitro human cadaveric biomechanical analysis. Methods: Twenty fresh-frozen human cadaveric thoracic vertebral levels were prepared and dual-energy radiographic absorptiometry scanned for bone mineral density (BMD). All specimens were osteoporotic with a mean BMD of 0.60±0.07 g/cm2. Five specimens (n=10) were used to perform a pilot study, as there were no previously established values for optimal tapping IT. Each pedicle during the pilot study was measured using a digital caliper as well as computed tomography measurements, and the optimal screw size was determined to be equal to or the first size smaller than the pedicle diameter. The optimal tap size was then selected as the tap diameter 1 mm smaller than the optimal screw size. During optimal tap size insertion, all peak tapping IT values were found to be between 2 in-lbs and 3 in-lbs. Therefore, the threshold tapping IT value for optimal pedicle screw and tap size was determined to be 2.5 in-lbs, and a comparison tapping IT value of 1.5 in-lbs was selected. Next, 15 test specimens (n=30) were measured with digital calipers, probed, tapped, and instrumented using a paired comparison between the two threshold tapping IT values (Group 1: 1.5 in-lbs; Group 2: 2.5 in-lbs), randomly assigned to the left or right pedicle on each specimen. Each pedicle was incrementally tapped to increasing size (3.75, 4.00, 4.50, and 5.50 mm) until the threshold value was reached based on the assigned group. Pedicle screw size was determined by adding 1 mm to the tap size that crossed the threshold torque value. Torque measurements were recorded with each revolution during tap and pedicle screw insertion. Each specimen was then individually potted and pedicle screws pulled out "in-line" with the screw axis at a rate of 0.25 mm/sec. Peak pullout strength (POS) was measured in Newtons (N). Results: The peak tapping IT was significantly increased (50%) in Group 2 (3.23±0.65 in-lbs) compared with Group 1 (2.15±0.56 in-lbs) (p=.0005). The peak screw IT was also significantly increased (19%) in Group 2 (8.99±2.27 in-lbs) compared with Group 1 (7.52±2.96 in-lbs) (p=.02). The pedicle screw pullout strength was also significantly increased (23%) in Group 2 (877.9±235.2 N) compared with Group 1 (712.3±223.1 N) (p=.017). The mean pedicle screw diameter was significantly increased in Group 2 (5.70±1.05 mm) compared with Group 1 (5.00±0.80 mm) (p=.0002). There was also an increased rate of optimal pedicle screw size selection in Group 2 with 9 of 15 (60%) pedicle screws compared with Group 1 with 4 of 15 (26.7%) pedicle screws within 1 mm of the measured pedicle width. There was a moderate correlation for tapping IT with both screw IT (r=0.54; p=.002) and pedicle screw POS (r=0.55; p=.002). Conclusions: Our findings suggest that tapping IT directly correlates with pedicle screw IT, pedicle screw pullout strength, and optimal pedicle screw size. Therefore, tapping IT may be used during thoracic pedicle screw instrumentation as an adjunct to preoperative imaging and clinical experience to maximize fixation strength and optimize pedicle "fit and fill" with the largest screw possible. However, further prospective, in vivo studies are necessary to evaluate the intraoperative use of tapping IT to predict screw loosening/complications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)957-965
Number of pages9
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomechanics
  • Insertional torque
  • Pedicle screw size
  • Pullout strength
  • Tapping insertional torque


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