Patrick Platzer, Manuela Jaindl, Gerhild Thalhammer, Stefan Dittrich, Thomas Wieland, Vilmos Vecsei, Christian Gaebler

December 2006, Volume 15, Issue 12, pp 1801 - 1810 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-006-0084-1

First Online: 15 March 2006

Clearing the cervical spine in polytrauma patients still presents a challenge to the trauma team. The risk of an overlooked cervical spine injury is substantial since these patients show painful and life-threatening injuries to one or more organ systems so that clinical examination is usually not reliable. A generally approved guideline to assess the cervical spine in polytrauma patients might significantly reduce delays in diagnosis, but a consistent protocol for evaluating the cervical spine has not been uniformly accepted or followed by clinicians. One purpose of this study was to analyse the common methods for cervical spine evaluation in critically injured patients and its safety and efficacy at this trauma centre. The second purpose was to present a comprehensive diagnostic C-spine protocol, based on the authors’ experiences with documented cases. From a prospectively gathered polytrauma database, we retrospectively analysed the clinical records of all polytrauma patients, with skeletal and/or non-skeletal cervical spine injuries, who were admitted to this level I trauma centre between 1980 and 2004. All patients were assessed following the trauma algorithm of our unit (modified by Nast-Kolb). Standard radiological evaluation of the cervical spine consisted of either a single lateral view or a three-view cervical spine series (anteroposterior, lateral, odontoid). Further radiological examinations (functional flexion/extension views, oblique views, CT scan, MRI) were carried out for clinical suspicion of an injury or when indicated by the standard radiographs. Sixteen patients (14%) had a single cross-table lateral view for radiological assessment of the cervical spine during initial trauma evaluation, Twenty-nine patients had a three-view cervical spine series (anteroposterior, lateral, odontoid) and 81 patients underwent extended radiological examinations by cervical CT scan (n=52), functional flexion/extension views (n=26) or MRI (n=3). Correct diagnosis was made in 107 patients (91%) during primary trauma evaluation, whereas in 11 patients (9%) our approach to clear the cervical spine failed to detect significant cervical spine injuries. In six patients skeletal injuries were missed by a single lateral view and in two patients by a three-view standard series because inadequate radiographs with poor technical quality or incomplete visualization of the cervical spine did not show the extent of the injury. In three cases ligamentous injuries were missed despite complete sets of standard radiographs and cervical CT scan, but without functional radiography. Common methods for cervical spine evaluation in critically injured patients were plain radiographs, cervical CT scan and functional flexion/extension views. Cervical CT scan was the most efficient imaging tool in detecting skeletal injuries, showing a sensitivity of 100%. A single cross-table lateral view appeared to be insufficient, as we found a sensitivity of only 63%. Functional radiography or MRI was also necessary, as plain radiographs and CT scan failed to detect significant ligamentous injuries in 6% of the patients. For more comprehensive assessment of the C-spine, we presented a new C-spine protocol based on the authors’ experiences, with the aim to avoid unnecessary delays in diagnosis.

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