Overview and Description
Spinal orthoses are mechanical systems prescribed to apply external pressure at specific anatomical points to immobilize, support or correct spinal deformities. Numerous types of spinal orthoses are available for the cervical, thoraco-lumbar, and sacral spine. Because of the anatomical design of the spine, direct external application of pressure is limited to the central posterior spine. The cranium, rib cage and/or pelvis are used to exert indirect control. Spinal orthoses increase perception of one’s own body posture via biofeedback and therefore may lead to improved posture.1
- Soft tissue injuries, e.g., cervical whiplash, muscular strain, and metastatic cancer pain
- Post-trauma in setting of spinal fractures
- Post-operative control of fractures
- Post-surgical care after spinal fusion or reconstruction
- To correct, control, or delay progression of spinal deformities such as scoliosis, kyphosis, or other neuromuscular caused deformities 2
- Stabilize spinal structures
- Maintain or correct spinal alignment
- Control spinal motion
- Off-load spinal elements
- Prevent or correct deformities/contractures
- Support weak muscles
- Aid in pain relief
- Provide biofeedback to correct posture/positioning
- Supportive orthoses are typically used for temporary pain control by:
- protecting the muscles and joints of the injured spinal region,
- preventing or correcting malformations,
- limiting painful range of motion, ³
- providing kinesthetic feedback.
- Immobilization orthoses are primarily used for:
- spinal trauma, with or without surgical intervention, as well as
- post-spinal reconstruction surgeries, including fusions.
- Corrective orthoses are frequently prescribed in pediatrics to address scoliosis or kyphosis that is idiopathic or secondary to neuromuscular disease.
Conditions potentially warranting orthotic treatment:
- Cervical or lumbar sprain/strain
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, or spondylosis 4
- Stable fractures, post-surgical stabilization and/or fusion
- Kyphosis or scoliosis
- Arthritic conditions: inflammatory or non-inflammatory, osteoarthritis
- Paralysis from neuromuscular disease, tetraplegia
Potential complications associated with Spinal Orthotic use:
- Loss of skin integrity
- Weakening of axial muscles
- Soft tissue contracture formation
- Physiological and/or psychological dependence 2
Relevance to Clinical Practice
- Orthoses serve their purpose by applying force in the correct body areas. Contact between the orthosis and the patient’s body is proportional to control and pressure distribution.
- Forces can vary due to body habitus and patient movement or positioning. 5
- Fitting obese patients can be challenging, as the ability to control the spine through extensive soft tissue is limited.
- Cachectic patients may have problems with fit due to limited soft tissue over pressure points and bony prominences. Skin irritation or even ulceration may occur; diligence in fitting and monitoring is essential.
- There are differences between spinal orthoses for pediatric and adult populations. ⁶
- While they use similar materials, the proposed mechanism of action is different.
- Adult spines are more rigid than pediatric spines and are less responsive to external forces.
- While there may be a potential to regulate adolescents’ spinal growth, the goal of adult bracing is to apply external forces to the spine and trunk to temporarily improve spinal alignment.
- Spinal orthoses relieve symptoms that accompany postural deviation by moving a patient’s spine and trunk into the best possible alignment.
- No spinal orthosis achieves complete immobilization of the spine.
- The halo achieves the best control, but “snaking”, or movement, in the cervical spine still occurs.
- The Philadelphia or similar cervical orthosis requires a thoracic extension for controlling C6-T5 (cervicothoracic junction).
- Literature suggests to best immobilize the L4-L5 and L5-S1 levels, a unilateral thigh extension is required on a rigid lumbosacral orthosis.7
- As their main purpose is to immobilize and support the spine, it is important to remember that orthoses may interfere with mobility and activities of daily living.
- Spinal orthoses should be prescribed judiciously, typically in conjunction with a rehabilitation treatment program fostering patient independence and minimizing the potential of their adverse effects.
Choosing an orthosis:
- No specific criteria are available for determining when or which orthosis is indicated. The clinician must first diagnose the underlying condition and decide if orthotic treatment is required. The planes of actual or potential spine malalignment should guide the clinician towards choosing the proper sagittal or coronal control system.
- If an orthosis is deemed appropriate, the goals need to be clear to the patient and the orthotist. Treatment goals may include stabilizing spinal structures, limiting motion, off-loading spinal elements, correcting alignment, and/or providing support and pain relief or a combination of these.
- The various contraindications and the biomechanical effect of each orthosis need to be considered as well.
- Additionally, it is crucial to discuss the duration that the orthotic will be used.
- Consider flexible orthoses such as soft collars or corsets for pain control in a stable spine.
- Ideally, these devices are coupled with a rehabilitation plan that includes time-limited use, ROM, exercise, and mobility.
- Soft flexible orthoses may be used for osteoarthritis, degenerative disc or spine disease, sprains, or inflammatory arthritis.
- Used for spinal stabilization; soft flexible orthoses are contraindicated in an unstable spine.
- The stability of the vertebral column must be ascertained in trauma or spinal fractures. If the fracture does not require surgical stabilization, a more rigid and motion-limiting orthosis is indicated.
- Halo orthosis is indicated for stable high cervical spinal fractures or unstable cervical spine fractures that do not require surgery and it has better motion control than Minerva orthosis. It is contraindicated in the presence of skull fractures or skull wounds that would be located near the site of pin placement.
- A thoraco-lumbosacral semi-rigid total contact orthosis (TLSO, “body jacket”, “turtle shell”) provides total contact and limits flexion, extension, and rotation of the thoracolumbar spine, but does not provide control above C7.
Cervical Orthoses (CO):
- The cervical spine is the most mobile part of the spine with multiple planes of motion and degrees of freedom, which are relevant to the fitting, use and prescription of a cervical orthosis. Additionally, the surface area is small and the amount of external force that can be applied is limited.
- Types of COs include: cervical collars, cervicothoracic orthoses (CTO), halo or similar type of orthoses.
- COs achieve the previously mentioned goals, but some are designed to redistribute the weight of the head to the trunk.
- Examples of COs from the least to the most-restrictive include: soft collar, Philadelphia/ Aspen/ Miami J/ Malibu, SOMI (Sternal-Occipital-Mandibular Immobilizer), Four-poster, Minerva, Halo/ Halovest.2
- Although soft COs are commonly used in clinical practice, there is no evidence that supports their use for axial neck pain or whiplash injury. In acute whiplash, using a soft CO delays return to work, when compared to patients who were prescribed exercise only. 8 Early mobilization was superior to soft collar immobilization in cervical soft tissue injuries. 9
Lumbosacral (LSO) and Thoraco-Lumbosacral Orthoses (TLSO):
- Generally categorized into either corsets, jackets, hyperextension, hyperflexion, or rigid braces.
- These are 3-point force control systems that place pressure on pathological curves. Most TLSO allow for extension and limited rotation of the spine and are composed of two anterior supports counterbalanced by a rigid posterior support.
- An additional abdominal compression reduces the longitudinal spinal forces, lumbar lordosis, and intervertebral joint motion, thereby off-loading the intervertebral discs. The pelvis serves as the base of alignment. Pressure over the bony prominences provides a kinesthetic reminder to maintain or correct posture.
- Examples of LSO and TLSO:
- Jewett TLSO – diamond shaped, with anterior pads on the sternum and lower abdomen and a posterior padded strap
- CASH (Cruciform Anterior Spinal Hyperextension) TLSO – cross shaped, with an anterior rigid vertical frame contacting the sternal notch and the hypogastrium, a horizontal midsection support with lateral pads over the flanks, and a back-support pad
- LSO – commonly prescribed in outpatient clinics as soft corsets, belts, or rigid braces, wrap around the abdomen to provide compression, can come with adjustable/ removable side and back panels
- Williams Flexion LSO – one of the few flexion orthoses, prevents excessive lordosis through posterior thoracic and pelvic rigid bands counterbalanced by an anterior abdominal elastic band which allows flexion; limits lateral bending through lateral and oblique bars; indicated for spondylolisthesis, lumbar stenosis, or facet arthropathy
- Scoliosis TLSO Body Jacket – uses 3-4 biomechanical forces, generally designed to help correct scoliotic spine with an apex below T7
Cervical-Thoraco-Lumbosacral Orthoses (CTLSO):
- Milwaukee brace – contoured pelvic girdle CTLSO with three uprights to an occipital pad and a chin piece, with additional lumbar and thoracic pads suspended from the uprights.
- Used primarily for correction of deformity due to idiopathic scoliosis. It is indicated in a skeletally immature child with a Cobb angle of 20 degrees or greater.
- The efficacy of bracing appears to be directly related to the number of hours/day that the brace is worn.10
- Wearing a Milwaukee brace for 23 hours appears to be the most effective for treatment of moderate scoliosis.11
- Periodic X-rays are used to monitor change in the spinal curvature. In one meta-analysis, the weighted mean proportion of success was 0.93, 0.62, and 0.60 for 23, 16, and 8 hours of wear per day, respectively.12
- It immobilizes the thoracolumbar spine and provides corrective forces to the spine. Using the ribs as stabilizers, thoracic forces are applied superiorly and medially with thoracic pads.
- Patient compliance is a problem because of bulk, size, and unattractiveness of the orthosis.
- Patients often overestimate the time they actually spend in an orthosis. The efficacy also appears to be related to sex (decreased in males), and weight, with decreased efficacy in overweight patients.10
Sacral and Sacroiliac Orthoses (SIO):
- Trochanteric band and sacroiliac corsets are the most commonly used.
- They offer minimal support but may provide sufficient proprioceptive feedback to avoid painful motions and reduce fear of motion.
- Sacroiliac belts have been shown to improve sacroiliac pain.13
- The use of a sacroiliac belt may decrease the shearing force across the sacroiliac joint and reduce stress across the surrounding muscles surrounding the joint.14
- Rapid weaning from a belt is recommended to prevent dependence and muscular weakness resulting from overreliance and core muscle atrophy.
- Prescribed in the setting of sacroiliac dysfunction or low back pain during pregnancy.8
Social and Economic Factors
- Wearing orthoses has potential interference with ADLs, school, or work. Many devices are cumbersome and unattractive, which negatively impacts patient compliance.
- Some patients become psychologically dependent on the device and wear the orthosis long after it is no longer needed.
- Psychosocial studies of adult scoliosis patients wearing orthoses have shown limitations in social relationships due to fear of injury, self-consciousness, or physical difficulty in participating in activities.11
- Spinal orthoses may not be well tolerated in some conditions, such as hot, humid climates.
- One study showed an increase in compliance if there was an electronic monitoring device within the TLSO.15
- Efforts have been geared towards improving the comfort of the materials used and reducing the weight of the orthosis, while maintaining stability. 16
- Most commercially available spinal orthoses in the United States have not been tested in a standardized fashion. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies spinal orthoses as Class I devices, meaning that the use of the device has been deemed “low risk” and thus has low regulatory control. FDA clearance is not required before production or sales in the medical device market.
- Commercial prefabricated orthoses may be more economical; however, they may have limitations of less intimate fit, less control, and need for modifications. They are often more complex in design, e.g., more strapping to accommodate various body shapes.
Cutting Edge/Unique Concepts/Emerging Issues
Studies are in their early stages utilizing spinal imaging (MRI or CT scans), typically done at the time of injury, to design and fit a custom orthosis for the individual.
There is a growing movement in the orthotics industry to employ laser scanners, computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), coupled with advanced software to measure and fabricate orthoses, thereby increasingly eliminating casting and other labor-intensive approaches.10,17
Gaps in Knowledge/Evidence Base
In general, research is lacking in regard to indications when to use and when not to use spinal orthoses. Furthermore, the research that is available shows significant contradictory stances.
- For example, it is generally accepted that stable thoracolumbar burst fractures should be treated conservatively with spinal bracing and physical therapy, rather than surgical fixation. A study with a 16 to 22 year follow-up shows evidence to support this treatment plan despite other studies that are shown to favor surgical fixation.16,18 Additionally, in the same subset of stable fractures there have been trials that support no bracing and early ambulation, rather than with just bracing.19,20
- The literature also has conflicting results about the deconditioning effects of orthoses on the paraspinal muscles: some studies suggest the muscles get stronger, while others suggest that they get weaker, and even other suggest that there is no change in the strength of the supportive musculature.16,21,22
- Other studies have looked at the effect of post-operative bracing after surgical fixation. Again, these have yielded results that either recommend against bracing or find no difference in outcomes between those with bracing and those without following surgery.16,23
Despite the growing field of cancer rehabilitation, evidence-based guidance around how to correctly position and when to mobilize patients with metastatic spine disease is lacking. It is unknown if spinal orthoses are effective for pain control and improving quality of life in metastatic disease.
Few randomized control trials (RCTs) are published to document efficacy of spinal orthoses according to evidence-based medicine criteria. Areas of needed study include: 1) determining the efficacy of cervical and upper thoracic immobilization after surgery; 2) development of more effective non-invasive immobilization of the unstable cervical spine; 3) efficacy in the treatment of osteoporosis; and 4) developing guidelines with indications for and against use of spinal orthoses.
- Pfeifer M, Gehlen M, Hinz C. Rückenorthesen in der Behandlung von Wirbelkörperfrakturen bei Osteoporose : Eine systematische Übersichtsarbeit [Spinal orthoses in the treatment of vertebral fractures with osteoporosis : A systematic review article]. Z Rheumatol. 2017;76(10):860-868.
- O’Young B, Young MA, Stiens SA. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Secrets. Mosby; 2008.
- Choo YJ, Chang MC. Effectiveness of orthoses for treatment in patients with spinal pain. Yeungnam Univ J Med. 2020;37(2):84-89.
- Panteliadis P, Nagra NS, Edwards KL, Behrbalk E, Boszczyk B. Athletic Population with Spondylolysis: Review of Outcomes following Surgical Repair or Conservative Management. Global Spine J. 2016;6(6):615-25.
- Rohlmann A, Zander T, Graichen F, Bergmann G. Effect of an orthosis on the loads acting on a vertebral body replacement. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2013;28(5):490-4.
- McAviney J, Mee J, Fazalbhoy A, Du Plessis J, Brown BT. A systematic literature review of spinal brace/orthosis treatment for adults with scoliosis between 1967 and 2018: clinical outcomes and harms data. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2020;21(1):87.
- Fidler MW, Plasmans CM. The effect of four types of support on the segmental mobility of the lumbosacral spine. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1983;65(7):943-947.
- Crawford JR, Khan RJ, Varley GW. Early management and outcome following soft tissue injuries of the neck: a randomized control trial. Injury. 2004;35(9):891-895.
- Zarghooni K, Beyer F, Siewe J, Eysel P. The orthotic treatment of acute and chronic disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013;110(44):737-42.
- O’Neill PJ, Karol LA, Shindle MK, et al. Decreased orthotic effectiveness in overweight patients with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2005;87:1069.
- Misterska E, Głowacki J, Głowacki M, Okręt A. Long-term effects of conservative treatment of Milwaukee brace on body image and mental health of patients with idiopathic scoliosis. PLoS One. 2018;13(2):e0193447.
- Nachemson AL, Peterson LE. Effectiveness of treatment with a brace in girls who have adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. A prospective, controlled study based on data from the Brace Study of the Scoliosis Research Society. 1995;77(6):815.
- Schmidt GL, Bhandutia AK, Altman DT. Management of Sacroiliac Joint Pain. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2018;26(17):610-616.
- Hammer N, Möbius R, Schleifenbaum S, et al. Pelvic Belt Effects on Health Outcomes and Functional Parameters of Patients with Sacroiliac Joint Pain [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0140090]. PLoS One. 2015;10(8):e0136375.
- Miller DJ, Franzone JM, Matsumoto H, et al. Electronic monitoring improves brace-wearing compliance in patients with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis: a randomized clinical trial. Spine. 2012;37(9):717-21.
- Rizza R, Liu X, Thometz J, Tassone C. Comparison of biomechanical behavior between a cast material torso jacket and a polyethylene based jacket. Scoliosis. 2015;10(Suppl 2):S15.
- Cobetto N, Aubin CE, Parent S, et al. Effectiveness of braces designed using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and finite element simulation compared to CAD/CAM only for the conservative treatment of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis: a prospective randomized controlled trial. Eur Spine J. 2016;.
- Wood KB, Buttermann GR, Phukan R, et al. Operative compared with nonoperative treatment of a thoracolumbar burst fracture without neurological deficit: a prospective randomized study with follow-up at sixteen to twenty-two years. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2015;97(1):3-9.
- Kim HJ, Yi JM, Cho HG, et al. Comparative study of the treatment outcomes of osteoporotic compression fractures without neurologic injury using a rigid brace, a soft brace, and no brace: a prospective randomized controlled non-inferiority trial. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2014;96(23):1959-66.
- Bailey CS, Urquhart JC, Dvorak MF, et al. Orthosis versus no orthosis for the treatment of thoracolumbar burst fractures without neurologic injury: a multicenter prospective randomized equivalence trial. Spine J. 2014;14(11):2557-64.
- Schwab F. Treatment with or without an Orthosis is Equivalent for Thoracolumbar Burst Fracture without Neurologic Injury. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2015;97(16):1374.
- Valentin GH, Pedersen LN, Maribo T. Wearing an active spinal orthosis improves back extensor strength in women with osteoporotic vertebral fractures. Prosthet Orthot Int. 2014;38(3):232-8.
- Skoch J, Zoccali C, Zaninovich O, et al. Bracing After Surgical Stabilization of Thoracolumbar Fractures: A Systematic Review of Evidence, Indications, and Practices. World Neurosurg. 2016;93:221-8.
Original Version of the Topic
Mary Catherine Spires, MD. Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbosacral Orthoses. 11/05/2012
Original Version of the Topic
Jennifer Yang, MD, Erika Gosai, MD and Steven Avers, DO. Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbosacral Orthoses. 3/23/2017
Laurentiu Iulius Dinescu, MD
Nothing to Disclose
Michael Crimmins, MD
Nothing to Disclose
Maksim Shmargun, MD
Nothing to Disclose
Shruti Amin, MD
Nothing to Disclose