U.S. Department of Defense


Date of this Version



The Spine Journal 12 (2012) 843–848; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2011.10.007


BACKGROUND CONTEXT: To evaluate the effect of critical time periods in vehicle protection on spine injuries in the Global War on Terror.

PURPOSE: To characterize the effect of method of movement on and around the battlefield during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2001 to 2009 in terms of its impact on the incidence and severity of spinal fractures sustained in combat.

STUDY DESIGN/SETTING: Retrospective study.

PATIENT SAMPLE: Mounted and dismounted American service members who were injured during combat.

METHODS: Extracted medical records of service members identified in the Joint Theater Trauma Registry from October 2001 to December 2009. Methods of movement were defined as mounted or dismounted. Two time periods were compared. Cohorts were created for 2 × 2 analysis based on method of movement and the time period in which the injury occurred. Time period 1 and 2 were separated by April 1, 2007, which correlates with the initial fielding of the modern class of up-armored fighting vehicles with thickened underbelly armor and a V-shaped hull. Our four comparison groups were Dismounted in Time Period 1 (D1), Dismounted in Time Period 2 (D2), Mounted in Time Period 1 (M1), and Mounted in Time Period 2 (M2).

RESULTS: In total, 1,819 spine fractures occurred over the entire study period. Four hundred seventy-two fractures (26%) were sustained in 145 service members who were mounted at the time of injury, and 1,347 (74%) were sustained by 404 service members who were dismounted (p<.0005). The incidence of fractures in the dismounted cohort (D1+D2) was significantly higher than in the mounted cohort (M1+M2) in both time periods (D1 vs. M1, 13.75 vs. 3.95/10,000 warrior-years [p < .001] and D2 vs. M2, 11.15 vs. 4.89/10,000 warrior-years [p < .0001]). In both the mounted and dismounted groups, the thoracolumbar (TL) junction was the most common site of injury (36.1%). Fractures to the TL junction (T10–L3) increased significantly from Time Period 1 to 2 (34% vs. 40% of all fractures, respectively, p5.03). Thoracolumbar fractures were significantly more severe in that there were more Arbeitsgemeinschaft fur Osteosynthesefragen/Magerl Type A injuries versus all TL fractures, 1.75 versus 2.68/10,000 or 27% of all spine fractures in Time Period 1 versus 40% in Time Period 2 (p=.007). Furthermore, there were significantly fewer minor fractures (spinous process and transverse process fractures) (p<.0001). In Time Period 2, significantly more TL spine fractures were classified as major fractures, according to the Denis classification system, in both the mounted and dismounted groups; M1 group, 61 of 226 (27%) versus the M2 group, 86 of 246 (34%) (p<.0005) and 173 of 786 (22%) in the D1 group versus 193 of 561 (34%) in the D2 group. The spinal cord injury (SCI) incidence did not change in the mounted groups in Time Period 1 (7 of 71, 9.9%) versus Time Period 2 (7 of 74, 9.5%) (p=.935). In the dismounted groups, SCI actually decreased from D1 (55 of 228, 24%) to D2 (28 of 176, 16%) (p=.0428).

CONCLUSIONS: The incidence of spine fractures and SCI is significantly higher in dismounted operations. The data suggest that current uparmored vehicles convey greater protection against spinal fracture compared with dismounted operations in which service members are engaged on foot, outside their vehicles. The TL junction is at greatest risk for spine fractures sustained in mounted and dismounted combat operations. Recently, the incidence of TL fractures, especially severe fractures, has significantly increased in mounted operations. Although there has been an increased incidence of TL spine fractures, in context of the number of service members deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom, these severe fractures still represent a relatively rare event.