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8th Combined Meeting Of Orthopaedic Research Societies (CORS)


Summary Statement

Using abdominal CT scans to evaluate bone mineral density following acute fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine demonstrates significant levels of osteoporosis in older patients; this approach may help save on time and resources, and reduce unnecessary radiation exposure.


While a reduction in bone mineral density (BMD) is associated with aging, relatively few patients have formal dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) to quantify the magnitude of bone loss, as they age. This loss of bone may predispose to fractures. Recent data, which correlates mean Hounsfield units (HU) in an area of the L1 vertebra with BMD, now makes it possible to screen for osteoporosis using incidental abdominal Computed Tomography (CT) scans to measure bone density. This innovation has the potential to reduce both cost and radiation exposure, and also make it easier to identify patients who may be at risk. The aims of this study were to evaluate the utility of this approach in patients with acute thoracic and lumbar spine fractures and to evaluate the impact of aging on BMD, using CT screening.

Patients & Methods

Following institutional review board approval, we performed a retrospective study of patients who presented to a level I trauma center with acute fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine between 2010 and 2013; patients also had to have had an abdominal (or L1) CT scan either during the admission or in the 6 months before or after their injury. Using a picture archiving and communication (PACS) system, we generated regions of interest (ROI) of similar size in the body of L1 (excluding the cortex) and computed mean values for HU. Values derived were compared against threshold values which differentiate between osteoporosis and osteopenia - for specificity of 90%, a threshold of 110 was set; for balanced sensitivity and specificity, a threshold of <135 HU was set and for 90% sensitivity a threshold of <160 HU was set. A student's t test was used to compare the age stratified mean HU (younger than 65yrs; 65yrs and older), while Fisher's exact test was used to perform aged stratified comparisons between the proportions of patients above and below the thresholds outlined (in each of the three threshold groups).


A total of 124 patients were evaluated, with 74 having thoracic and 50 having lumbar fractures. Among those with thoracic fractures, there were 33patients in the younger cohort, who also had a mean BMD of 196.51HU and 41 in the older cohort, who had mean BMD of 105.90HU (p<0.001). In patients with lumbar fractures, 27 patients were in the younger cohort, with mean BMD of 192.26HU and 23 patients in the older cohort with mean BMD of 114.31HU (p<0.001). At the threshold of 110 HU, set for specificity, the magnitude of difference between the age stratified cohorts was greater in the thoracic spine (p<0.001 vs. p=0.003). At the other thresholds: 135HU (balanced for sensitivity and specificity) and 160 HU (90% sensitivity), age of 65 years or older was significantly associated with reduction in CT derived measure of BMD (p<0.001 in all cases).


This study demonstrates the relative frequency of osteoporosis in acute fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine, and how this changes with age; it is also the first study to do this using opportunistic CT scans. There seems to be a strong association between a reduction in bone mineral density and advanced age, in patients presenting with acute fractures of the spine. This approach may save on the extra cost and additional radiation exposure that may be associated with DXA scanning; in addition, it may help provide clinicians and patients with an approach to monitor developing problems with BMD before it becomes clinically apparent, especially in younger patients.