E. Hartwig, A. Kettler, M. Schultheiß, L. Kinzl, L. Claes, H.-J. Wilke

June 2004, Volume 13, Issue 7, pp 590 - 597 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-003-0624-x

First Online: 22 June 2004

Whether injuries to the alar ligaments could be responsible for complaints of patients having whiplash injury in the upper cervical spine is still controversially discussed. It is known that these ligaments protect the upper cervical spine against excessive lateral bending and axial rotation movements. The objective of the present in vitro study was therefore to examine whether the alar ligaments or any other structures of the cervical spine are damaged in side collisions. In a specially designed acceleration apparatus, six human osteoligamentous cervical spine specimens were subjected to incremental 90° side collisions from the right (1 g, 2 g, 3 g, etc.) until structural failure occurred. A damped pivot table accounted for the passive movements of the trunk during collision, and a dummy head (4.5 kg) ensured almost physiological loading of the specimens. For quantification of functional injuries, the three-dimensional flexibility of the specimens was tested in a spine tester before and after each acceleration. In all six specimens, structural failure always occurred in the lower cervical spine and always affected the facet joint capsules and the intervertebral discs. In four specimens, this damage occurred during the 2 g collision, while in the other two it occurred during the 3 g and 4 g collision, respectively. The flexibility mainly increased in the lower cervical spine (especially in lateral bending to both sides) and, to a minor extent, in axial rotation. In vitro low-speed side collisions caused functional and structural injury to discoligamentous structures of the lower cervical spine, but did not damage the alar ligaments. Since the effects of muscle forces were not taken into account, the present in vitro study reflects a worst-case scenario. Injury thresholds should therefore not be transferred to reality.

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