Tuberculosis of the Spine: Controversies and a New Challenge

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Tuberculosis is a deadly disease affecting many people in the world. The prevalence of spinal tuberculosis is likely to rise as the numbers of those infected with human immunodeficiency virus rises. This presentation summarizes present knowledge of spinal tuberculosis and its management. It describes and updates material the author has previously published on this subject.

The scientific basis for the clinical management of spinal tuberculosis has been well established by the British Medical Research Council group and Hong Kong surgeons. It is believed, however, that well-controlled basic and clinical studies are required if the incidence of the three unwanted complications of spinal tuberculosis is to be reduced further.

Antituberculosis agents are the mainstay of management, with chemotherapy for 12 months preferred to shorter courses. The standard is a combination of isoniazid, rifampin, and pyrazinamide, with or without ethambutol.

Anterior surgery consisting of radical focal débridement without fusion does not prevent vertebral collapse. The major advantage of anterior arthrodesis is the decreased tendency for progression of the deformity. Patients who present late with deformity are candidates for anterior débridement and stabilization with corrective instrumentation. Posterior stabilization with instrumentation has been found to help arrest the disease and to bring about early fusion. Posterior instrumented stabilization to prevent kyphosis in early spinal tuberculosis is indicated, however, only when anterior and posterior elements of the spine are involved, particularly in children.

With early detection, institution of chemotherapy, and improved surgical techniques, patients with kyphosis rarely are seen today, particularly in urban centers that have an effective medical system. For these same reasons, patients with spinal tuberculosis who present with paraplegia and no deformity usually respond well to treatment.

It is concluded that spinal tuberculosis without unsightly kyphosis and neurologic symptoms is a medical, rather than a surgical, condition. Surgery should be reserved for those patients who have advanced tuberculosis with unacceptable complications such as paraplegia and/or deformity.

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