University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Spine and Spinal Cord Injuries After Falls From Tree Stands During the Wisconsin Deer Hunting Season

Kimberly Hamilton, MD; Brandon Rocque, MD, MS; Nathanial Brooks, MD

WMJ. 2017;116(4):201-205.

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Background: Deer hunting is popular in much of the United States. In Wisconsin, use of tree stands for hunting is common. Spine surgeons at a Level 1 Trauma Center observed a high incidence of spine and spinal cord injury due to falls from tree stands while hunting. This study’s purpose is to systematically characterize and classify those injuries.

Methods: We reviewed the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics’ trauma database for tree stand-related injuries from 1999 to 2013. We collected and analyzed data pertaining to hunters’ demographics, comorbidities, type and mechanism of injury, injury severity, and management.

Results: We identified 117 patients evaluated after a tree stand fall. Sixty-five (ages 16-76) suffered spine fractures that occurred at all levels, from occipital condyle to sacrum, with thoracolumbar compression and burst fractures being most common. Fractures occurred in the following locations: cranio-cervical junction (8.7%), cervical spine (7.6%), cervical-thoracic junction (6.5%), thoracic spine (32.6%), thoracolumbar junction (33.7%), and lumbar spine (10.9%). Twenty-one patients (32%) experienced a single spinal fracture; 44 patients (68%) suffered multiple spinal fractures. Twenty-five patients (38%) required surgical fixation; 19 patients experienced loss of neurologic function: 5 complete spinal cord injuries (SCI), 5 incomplete SCI, 2 central cord syndromes, and 8 radiculopathies. Two mortalities, both of cardiopulmonary etiology, were noted—one in a patient without a spine fracture and the other in a patient with a complete spinal cord injury at T4.

Conclusions: The majority of spine fractures are treated nonoperatively. However, enough patients require surgical intervention that consultation with a neurosurgical or orthopedic spine surgeon is prudent. It is more common to have multiple spine fractures from a tree stand fall, therefore, it is recommended that if 1 fracture is identified the entire spine be evaluated for additional fractures. For safety, it is recommended that hunters wear and use safety harnesses appropriately. Additionally, keeping the height of the tree stand at 10 feet or less is associated with a lower likelihood of spinal cord injury. Further study is needed to determine additional interventions such as education that might reduce the injury frequency in this population.

Author Affiliations: University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Neurosurgery Department, Madison, Wisconsin (Hamilton, Brooks); University of Alabama at Birmingham (Rocque).
Corresponding Author: Kimberly Hamilton, MD, 600 Highland Ave, Suite K4/8, Madison, WI 53792; phone 317.627.8612; fax 608.263.1728; email
Acknowledgements: The authors wish to acknowledge Dr Suresh Agarwal, Dr Ann O’Rourke, and Kelly Jung for creation and maintenance of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Trauma Database.
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: None declared.
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