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Overview and Description

The spine is made up of segments consisting of two vertebrae and the interconnecting soft tissues. The integration of the biomechanical characteristics of these individual spinal components provides the overall strength and structure of the spine to protect the spinal cord and nerve roots. In addition to protecting the spinal cord and nerve roots, spine stability is necessary to perform the other basic biomechanical function of the spinal system, which is to allow movements between body parts and to carry loads1.

The objective of this topic is to summarize the current concepts of spinal instability. While spinal instability has been defined in various ways, no universally accepted definition currently exists.

In one instance, Panjabi et al.1 describe the stability system as consisting of three conceptually separate but interdependent components:

  • Passive subsystem – spinal column (vertebrae, facet joints, intervertebral disc, spinal ligaments and joint capsules)
  • Active subsystem – spinal muscles (muscles and tendons)
  • Control subsystem – neural feedback (neural control centers and force transducers located in ligaments, tendons, muscles)

Excessive displacement of the spinal components would result in neurological deficit, deformity or pain. White and Panjabi2 define instability as “the loss of the ability of the spine under physiologic loads to maintain relationships between vertebrae in such a way that there is neither initial damage nor subsequent irritation to the spinal cord or nerve roots and, in addition, there is no development of incapacitating deformity or pain due to the structural changes.”

In another instance, Francis Denis3 proposed the “three-column” model. He describes three load-bearing columns in the sagittal plane: anterior, middle, and posterior columns. The anterior column consists of the anterior longitudinal ligament, anterior two thirds of vertebral body, and anterior two thirds of annulus fibrosis or disk. The middle column is formed by the posterior third of the vertebral body, posterior third of annulus fibrosis, and posterior longitudinal ligament. The posterior column includes pedicles, facet joints, facet capsules, laminae, supraspinous and interspinous ligaments, and ligamentum flavum. When integrity of the middle and either the anterior or posterior column are compromised, the spine will likely be unstable.

Additionally, instability can also be described as acute versus chronic, as well as overt, anticipated, or covert. Overt instability is excessive motion that is supported by radiographic studies and results in pain, deformity, or neurological deficits. Overt instability generally requires stabilization either by external or internal means. Anticipated instability refers to instability that would be produced by a surgical procedure that is required for proper decompression of neural elements or resection of an offending lesion. Covert or microinstability refers to circumstances in which excessive motion cannot be grossly demonstrated but is presumed to exist based on the combination of clinical and radiographic findings4.

Relevance to Clinical Practice

The pathophysiology of instability is highly variable depending on the etiology. The determination of stability may be made with an understanding of the biomechanics of the spine and the mechanism of injury (i.e. force vectors) with spine stability models.  Mechanism of spinal injury associated with instability is summarized in the table below adapted from Marx JA Rosen’s emergency medicine: concepts and clinical practice, 6th edition5.

As a general rule, conditions that result in acute overt instability require stabilization, either internally by fusion or externally by reduction and bracing. In traumatic injuries, if instability is due to a fracture rather than ligamentous rupture, if the fracture fragments are in contact and in near-anatomical alignment, and if there is no significant neural compression, an external brace is tried until the fracture heals. In all other circumstances and in cases where bracing has failed, fusion is indicated4.

Spinal instability may manifest in three distinct ways: neurologic deficit due to cord, nerve root or cauda equina compression, pain and incapacitating deformity. Many tools have been proposed to assess for spinal instability, though no true consensus has been reached. Evaluation for spinal instability differs in the acute traumatic setting versus the chronic degenerative setting.

Acute trauma setting:

  • Canadian C-spine rule6: used to determine when patients need cervical spine imaging
    • Age ≥65 years
    • Paresthesias in extremities
    • Dangerous mechanism:
      • fall from an elevation ≥3 ft or 5 stairs
      • axial load to the head (e.g. diving)
      • motor vehicle collision at high speed (>100 km/hr) or with rollover or ejection
      • bicycle collision
      • collision involving a motorized recreational vehicle
    • Nexus criteria7: relieves patients from c-spine immobilization and need for cervical spine imaging (no age cutoffs). Image only if one of the following is present.
      • Focal neurologic deficit
      • Midline spinal tenderness
      • Altered level of consciousness
      • Intoxication
      • Distracting injury

Chronic progressive deformity:

  • Focused history and physical exam with appropriate imaging including flexion and extension x-rays
    • History and Symptoms of Clinical Instability8
      • Giving way or back giving out, feeling of instability
      • Painful catching or locking during trunk motions
      • Pain during transitional activities
      • Worse with sustained postures
      • Long-term chronic disorder
    • Physical Signs of Instability9:
      • Visible, palpable (spinous process) step (listhesis, not necessarily hypermobility or instability)
      • Palpable mobility
      • Visible band of hypertrophied muscle at the level of instability
      • Observe (side of patient) active flexion for sudden shake or catch
      • Observe (behind patient) active flexion for side bending, may represent facet hypermobility on the opposite side
      • Palpate for step forward or rotation; if persistent in standing and prone (i.e. not positional), then potentially unstable
      • Transient neurologic signs such as neurologic claudication
    • Radiologic Diagnosis of Instability:
      • Cervical radiographs2
        • Segmental kyphosis greater than 11 degrees
        • Anterolisthesis greater than 3.5 mm of one vertebral body on another
      • Lateral neutral, flexion and extension xrays11
        • Forward displacement of one vertebrae on another: anterolisthesis
        • Backward displacement of one vertebrae on another: retrolisthesis
        • Narrowing of the intervertebral foramen and loss of disc thickness
        • An abrupt apparent change in pedicle length
      • Anteroposterior x-rays with lateral bending11
        • Bending to one side or another
        • Decreased bending to one side with loss of both vertebral rotation and tilt with actual opening of the disc on the side to which the patient is bending
        • An abnormal degree of disc closure on the side to which the patient is bending
        • Malalignment of spinous processes and pedicles
        • Lateral translation of one vertebra on another due to an abnormal degree of rotation

Spine Stability Scoring Systems

Decisions regarding spinal stability should be made taking all clinical information into consideration including information from the history, physical exam and available radiologic studies. Several scoring systems have been developed based on these pillars to assist in diagnosing and/or predicting instability and to potentially assist in guiding clinical decision making. The following three are commonly utilized:

  1. Magerl AO fracture classification (1994)11
  2. Thoracolumbar Injury Classification and Severity score (TLICS, 2005)12
    • Based on injury morphology, posterior ligamentous
  3. AO Spine Classification (2013)13
    • Based on fracture morphology, presence of neurologic signs, ligamentous injury and comorbid factors
    • Morphologies defined as compression, distraction and displacement or dislocation
  4. Spinal Instability Neoplastic Score (SINS, 2010)14
    • In the setting of tumor related (potential) instability
    • 6 categories
      1. Location (junctional, mobile, semirigid, rigid)
      2. Pain (mechanical, non-mechanical, painless)
      3. Bone Lesion (lytic, mixed, blastic)
      4. Radiographic spinal alignment
      5. Vertebral body collapse
      6. Posterior spinal element involvement (bilateral, unilateral)

Cutting Edge/Unique Concepts/Emerging Issues

Regenerative medicine continues to evolve in all aspects of medicine and musculoskeletal applications are no exception. The use of stem cells for musculoskeletal injury in both the axial and appendicular skeleton in minimally invasive and surgical procedures continue to be explored and may impact both traumatic and degenerative conditions effecting the spine. While modeling spinal stability had previously been limited to radiologic imaging, this has more recently been translated to three dimensional modeling via 3D printing technology. 3D printing has had many applications in medicine, in this case it has been used to precisely model spine morphology, assist in surgical planning and can potentially be used to customize external fixation devices and/or braces.

Gaps in Knowledge/Evidence Base

The current definitions and classifications of spine instability are not uniformly accepted nor applied. Therefore, there is no consensus about the timing of conservative versus surgical treatment in spine diseases with covert instability. The understandings of spinal biomechanics need improvement to determine and differentiate the relationship and severity between radiographic instability and its clinical manifestation. This gap in knowledge creates a burden for all disciplines involved in the diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from disorders of spine stability.


  1. Panjabi MM. The Stabilizing System of the Spine. Part 1. Function, Dysfunction, Adaptation and Enhancement. Journal of Spinal Disorders and Techniques 1992;5(4): 383-389
  2. White AA, 3rd, Johnson RM, Panjabi MM, Southwick WO. Biomechanical analysis of clinical stability in the cervical spine. Clin Orthop Relat Res.1975;109: 85–96
  3. Denis F. Spinal Instability as Defined by the Three-column spine concept in acute spinal trauma. Clinical Orthopedics and Related Research 1984;189: 65-76
  4. Pakzaban P, Kopell BH. Spinal Instability and Spinal Fusion Surgery.  Medscape Reference, updated 12/3/2013. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1343720-overview
  5. Marx, JA, Hockberber RS, Walls RM. Rosen’s emergency medicine: concepts and clinical practice, 6th edition. Mosby Inc., St Louis 2006. Copyright 2006 Elsevier
  6. Stiell, Ian G., et al. The Canadian C-spine rule for radiography in alert and stable trauma patients.  Jama. 2001; 286(15): 1841-1848
  7. Hoffman JR, Wolfson AB, Todd K, Mower WR. Selective cervical spine radiography in blunt trauma: methodology of the National Emergency X-Radiography Utilization Study (NEXUS). Ann Emerg Med. 1998;32(4): 461–9
  8. Biely S, Smith S, Silfies SP. Clinical instability of the lumbar spine: diagnosis and intervention. Ortho Phys Ther Pract. 2006;18(3):11–18
  9. Paris S. Physical signs of instability. Spine.1985;10(3): 277-279
  10. Kirkaldy-Willis WH, Farfan HF. Instability of the Lumbar Spine. Clinical Orthopedics and related research 165 (1982): 110-123
  11. Magerl F, Aebi M, Gertzbein SD, Harms J, Nazarian S. A comprehensive classification of thoracic and lumbar injuries. Eur Spine J. 1994;3(4):184-201. doi: 10.1007/BF02221591. PMID: 7866834.
  12. Lee JY, Vaccaro AR, Lim MR, Oner FC, Hulbert RJ, Hedlund R, Fehlings MG, Arnold P, Harrop J, Bono CM, Anderson PA, Anderson DG, Harris MB, Brown AK, Stock GH, Baron EM. Thoracolumbar injury classification and severity score: a new paradigm for the treatment of thoracolumbar spine trauma. J Orthop Sci. 2005 Nov;10(6):671-5. doi: 10.1007/s00776-005-0956-y. PMID: 16307197; PMCID: PMC2779435.
  13. Vaccaro AR, Oner C, Kepler CK, Dvorak M, Schnake K, Bellabarba C, Reinhold M, Aarabi B, Kandziora F, Chapman J, Shanmuganathan R, Fehlings M, Vialle L; AOSpine Spinal Cord Injury & Trauma Knowledge Forum. AOSpine thoracolumbar spine injury classification system: fracture description, neurological status, and key modifiers. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Nov 1;38(23):2028-37. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3182a8a381. PMID: 23970107.
  14. Fisher CG, Versteeg AL, Schouten R, Boriani S, Varga PP, Rhines LD, Heran MK, Kawahara N, Fourney D, Reynolds JJ, Fehlings MG, Gokaslan ZL. Reliability of the spinal instability neoplastic scale among radiologists: an assessment of instability secondary to spinal metastases. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2014 Oct;203(4):869-74. doi: 10.2214/AJR.13.12269. PMID: 25247954.

Original Version of the Topic

Vincent Huang, MD, Andrew Lederman, MD. Spinal Instability: Definition, theory and assessment of spinal column function and dysfunction. 4/11/2016

Author Disclosure

Andrew Lederman, MD
Nothing to Disclose

Vincent Huang, MD
Nothing to Disclose