Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research ®

A Publication of The Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons ®

Civilian Gunshot Injuries of the Spinal Cord: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature

Gursukhman S. Sidhu MBBS, Arvindera Ghag MD, Vanessa Prokuski BA, Alexander R. Vaccaro PhD, Kristen E. Radcliff MD



The principles that guide management of spinal cord injury (SCI) derive from injury resulting from blunt trauma, not gunshot wounds. Civilian gunshot-induced spinal cord injury (CGSWSCI) is a common, potentially serious cause of neurological deficit; there is disagreement about whether the same approaches used for SCI caused by blunt-force trauma should apply to gunshot-induced SCI.


We reviewed the literature to answer the following questions regarding presentation and outcome of gunshot wound-induced SCI: (1) Are there differences in recovery prognosis between complete SCI and other patterns of SCI in CGSWSCI. (2) Does the use of steroids improve neurological recovery? (3) Does surgery to remove the bullet affect neurological recovery in CGSWSCI? (4) Does surgery result in an increased risk of complications of treatment?


We performed a systematic literature review of articles related to civilian gunshot injuries to the spine. Information relating to incidence, pattern of neurological injury, associated injuries, treatment, neurological outcome, and associated complications was extracted. Three independent reviewers assessed the strength of evidence present in the literature by examining quality, quantity, and consistency of results.


A total of 15 articles met the predetermined inclusion criteria. Complete SCIs are associated with the worst functional recovery regardless of treatment. Steroids do not appear to have any added benefit in terms of restoring sensory and motor function. There appears to be some neurologic benefit to surgical decompression with intracanalicular bullet retrieval in patients with an incomplete lesion and a cauda equina syndrome. Complication rates are greater in operated patients.


These findings should be interpreted with caution because of considerable heterogeneity among the studies in the literature on gunshot-induced SCI and because of generally poor-quality study design and a high associated risk of selection bias. Supportive management should be the primary method of care, whereas surgery should be an option in case of radiographic evidence of a static compression on the spinal cord. Future studies are necessary to develop better treatment guidelines for patients with gunshot wound-associated SCI.

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