Spinal cord float back is not an independent predictor of postoperative C5 palsy in patients undergoing posterior cervical decompression

Zach Pennington, Daniel Lubelski, Erick M. Westbroek, Ethan Cottrill, Jeff Ehresman, Matthew Goodwin, Sheng Fu Lo, Timothy F. Witham, Nicholas Theodore, Ali Bydon, Daniel M. Sciubba

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Of the more than 30,000 posterior cervical spine fusions performed annually, 7%–12% will be complicated by postoperative C5 palsy, a condition characterized by new-onset deltoid weakness with or without C5 dermatomal findings and biceps weakness. Posterior translation of the cervical spinal cord has been proposed as a risk factor for this complication. PURPOSE: To evaluate if C5 palsy can be predicted by spinal cord float back. STUDY DESIGN/SETTING: Retrospective cohort. PATIENT SAMPLE: Patients ≥18 years of age undergoing posterior cervical decompression between 2002 and 2017 for degenerative cervical spine pathologies. OUTCOME MEASURES: Occurrence of C5 palsy as evaluated by manual motor testing (MMT). METHODS: We recorded baseline neurological status, operative notes, details of postoperative course, and both pre- and postoperative magnetic resonance imaging images. Float back was defined by the change in the distance between the spinal cord and posterior face of the C4/5 annulus from preoperative to postoperative imaging. C5 palsy was defined by new-onset deltoid weakness on MMT. RESULTS: We identified 242 patients with a mean age of 62.4 years and mean follow-up of 27.9 months. Forty-two (17.4%) experienced postoperative C5 palsy. On univariable analysis, significant predictors of postoperative C5 palsy were mean C4/5 foraminal diameter (2.8 vs. 3.2 mm; p<.001), anterior projection of the C5 superior articular process (4.12 vs. 3.70 mm; p=.04), cord float back (0.35 vs. 0.28 cm; p=.02), undergoing laminectomy of the C5 (p=.02) or C4 and C5 levels (p=.02), and undergoing instrumented fusion extending one level above and below the C4/5 level. Foraminotomy of the C4/5 level was not predictive of postoperative palsy. On multivariable analysis mean C4/5 foraminal diameter (odds ratio=0.38 per mm; p<.01) predicted C5 palsy; cord float back at the C4/5 level was not predictive of C5 palsy. CONCLUSIONS: Spinal cord float back was not an independent predictor of C5 palsy on multivariable analysis. Only smaller foraminal diameter was independently predictive of postoperative C5 palsy. This suggests that chronic preoperative compression of the C5 roots, not postdecompression float back may be the biggest contributor to the etiology of postoperative C5 palsy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)266-275
Number of pages10
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2020


  • C5 palsy
  • Cord float back
  • cervical myelopathy
  • cervical radiculopathy
  • posterior cervical decompression
  • predictive modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology


Dive into the research topics of 'Spinal cord float back is not an independent predictor of postoperative C5 palsy in patients undergoing posterior cervical decompression'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this