Defining the safe working zones using the minimally invasive lateral retroperitoneal transpsoas approach: An anatomical study

Juan S. Uribe, Nicolas Arredondo, Elias Dakwar, Fernando Vale Diaz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

208 Scopus citations


Object. The lateral retroperitoneal transpsoas approach is being increasingly employed to treat various spinal disorders. The minimally invasive blunt retroperitoneal and transpsoas dissection poses a risk of injury to major nervous structures. The addition of electrophysiological monitoring potentially decreases the risk of injury to the lumbar plexus. With respect to the use of the direct transpsoas approach, however, there is sparse knowledge regarding the relationship between the retroperitoneum/psoas muscle and the lumbar plexus at each lumbar segment. The authors undertook this anatomical cadaveric dissection study to define the anatomical safe zones relative to the disc spaces for prevention of nerve injuries during the lateral retroperitoneal transpsoas approach. Methods. Twenty lumbar segments were dissected and studied. The relationship between the retroperitoneum, psoas muscle, and the lumbar plexus was analyzed. The area between the anterior and posterior edges of the vertebral body (VB) was divided into 4 equal zones. Radiopaque markers were placed in each disc space at the midpoint of Zone III (middle posterior quarter). At each segment, the psoas muscle, lumbar plexus, and nerve roots were dissected. The distribution of the lumbar plexus with reference to the markers at each lumbar segment was analyzed. Results. All parts of the lumbar plexus, including nerve roots, were found within the substance of the psoas muscle dorsal to the posterior fourth of the VB (Zone IV). No Zone III marker was posterior to any part of the lumbar plexus with the exception of the genitofemoral nerve. The genitofemoral nerve travels obliquely in the substance of the psoas muscle from its origin to its innervations. It emerges superficially and anterior from the medial border of the psoas at the L3-4 level and courses along the anterior medial fourth of the L-4 and L-5 VBs (Zone I). The nerves of the plexus that originate at the upper lumbar segments emerge from the lateral border of the psoas major and cross obliquely into the retroperitoneum in front of the quadratus lumborum and the iliacus muscles to the iliac crest. Conclusions. With respect to prevention of direct nerve injury, the safe anatomical zones at the disc spaces from L1-2 to L3-4 are at the middle posterior quarter of the VB (midpoint of Zone III) and the safe anatomical zone at the L4-5 disc space is at the midpoint of the VB (Zone II-Zone III demarcation). There is risk of direct injury to the genitofemoral nerve in Zone II at the L2-3 space and in Zone I at the lower lumbar levels L3-4 and L4-5. There is also a potential risk of injury to the ilioinguinal, iliohypogastric, and lateral femoral cutaneous nerves in the retroperitoneal space where they travel obliquely, inferiorly, and anteriorly to the reach the iliac crest and the abdominal wall.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)260-266
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Neurosurgery: Spine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Anatomy
  • Lateral access
  • Lumbar interbody fusion
  • Safe zone
  • Surgical technique
  • Transpsoas retroperitoneal approach

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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