Protecting against postoperative dyspnea and dysphagia after occipitocervical fusion

David D. Gonda, Meng Huang, Valentina Briceño, Sandi K. Lam, Thomas G. Luerssen, Andrew Jea*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Upper airway obstruction leading to dyspnea and dysphagia after occipitocervical fusion is a rare complication that has significant morbidity. OBJECTIVE: To estimate the frequency of postoperative dyspnea and dysphagia in children after occipitocervical fusion and to identify variables associated with its occurrence. METHODS: We retrospectively reviewed outcomes from all pediatric occipitocervical fusions at our institution between 2007 and 2014. Pre- and postoperative computed tomography (CT) scans were compared to determine differences in the clivoaxial (OC2) angles. RESULTS: Sixty-seven pediatric patients underwent occipitocervical fusions. Median age was 9.6 yr (range 6 mo-18 yr). Fifty-six of 62 patients (90.3%) with at least 1 yr of follow-up had successful fusions. Eleven had pre-existing symptoms or otherwise compromised examination (eg, severe traumatic brain injury). None of 15 patients placed in extension (>2 degrees) relative to preoperative CT in Situ position developed new dyspnea or dysphagia. Nine of forty patients (23%) kept in Situ or flexed position developed new symptoms of dyspnea or dysphagia. Dysphagia in patients fused in the in Situ position was milder and resolved within a few weeks. No patient under age 5 (n = 20) developed symptoms of dyspnea or dysphagia regardless of head position. There were 3 cases of infection, 1 clinically silent vertebral artery injury, and 3 deaths at last follow-up. CONCLUSION: Positioning of the child's head prior to occipitocervical fusion has considerable impact on outcomes, especially in older children. Careful measurements of the OC2 angle during surgery to ensure optimal head positioning in Situ or slightly extended position may prevent postoperative dysphagia or dyspnea.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)254-260
Number of pages7
JournalOperative Neurosurgery
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Clival-axial angle
  • Dysphagia
  • Dyspnea
  • Occipitocervical fusion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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