Management of Pharyngeal Fistulas After Anterior Cervical Spine Surgery: A Treatment Algorithm for Severe Complications

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Study Design:

This study is a retrospective database query to identify all anterior spinal approaches.


The objectives were to assess all patients with pharyngocutaneous fistulas (PCFs) after anterior cervical spine surgery.

Summary of Background Data:

Patients with the diagnosis of PCFs were treated at the University of Heidelberg Spine Medical Center, Spinal Cord Injury Unit and Department of Otolaryngology (Germany), between 2005 and 2011.


We conducted a retrospective study on 5 patients with PCF after anterior cervical spine surgery between 2005 and 2011 and analyzed their therapy management and outcome on the basis of the radiologic data and patient charts.


Upon presentation, 4 patients were paraplegic. Two patients had PCF arising from 1 piriform sinus, 2 patients had PCF arising from the posterior pharyngeal wall and piriform sinus combined, and 1 patient had PCF arising only from the posterior pharyngeal wall. Two patients previously underwent unsuccessful surgical repair elsewhere and 1 patient underwent a prior radiation therapy. In 3 patients, speech and swallowing could be completely restored. Two patients died, both of whom were paraplegic. The patients were needed to undergo an average of 2 or 3 procedures for complete functional recovery of primary closure with various vascularized regional flaps and refining laser procedures supplemented with the negative pressure wound therapy wherever needed.


On the basis of our experience, we are able to provide a treatment algorithm that indicates that chronic, as opposed to acute, fistulas require a primary surgical closure combined with a vascularized flap that should be accompanied by the immediate application of a negative pressure wound therapy. We also conclude that particularly in paraplegic patients suffering from this complication the risk for a fatal outcome is substantial.

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