Although the trabecular bone of the human vertebral body has been well characterized, the thin “cortical” shell and endplate that surround the trabecular centrum have not. In addition, the accuracy of estimating the thickness of the shell and endplate using computed tomography (CT) has not been evaluated directly. To address these issues, we measured the thickness of the vertebral shell and endplate in the mid sagittal plane of 16 human L1 vertebral bodies using direct and CT based methods. Specimens were assigned to four equal sized groups based on age (middle-aged, mean age = 49 years; old, mean age = 84) and gender. We investigated the dependence of the shell and endplate thicknesses on age, gender, and anatomic region. Our findings indicate that the shell and endplate in vertebrae over age 45 are porous and often irregular, with an average thickness of approximately 0.35 mm. However, when measured from CT images, the vertebral shell and endplate appear significantly thicker, indicating that measurements based on clinical CT scans overestimate the thickness by a factor of at least two. In addition, our data indicated that, in the midsagittal plane, the anterior shell is thicker than the posterior shell or either endplate. Although these data indicated that thickness did not depend on age or gender, these particular findings are inconclusive given the small and heterogeneous sample we examined. We conclude that the so-called cortical shell and endplate of the vertebral body are thin (less than one-half of a millimeter) and porous, and perhaps are better thought of as thin membranes of fused trabeculae than as true cortices.
Keywords: Lumbar spine; Vertebral body;nVertebral shell;nEndplate; Computed tomography