Use of plain radiography to screen for cervical spine injuries

Ann Emerg Med. 2001 Jul;38(1):1-7. doi: 10.1067/mem.2001.115946.


Study objective: Standard radiographic screening may fail to reveal any evidence of injury in some patients with spinal injury. The purposes of this investigation were to document the efficacy of standard radiographic views and to categorize the frequencies and types of injuries missed on plain radiographic screening of the cervical spine.

Methods: All patients with blunt trauma selected for radiographic cervical spine imaging at 21 participating institutions underwent a standard 3-view series (cross-table lateral, anteroposterior, and odontoid views), as well as any other imaging deemed necessary by their physicians. Injuries detected with screening radiography were then compared with final injury status for each patient, as determined by review of all radiographic studies.

Results: The study enrolled 34,069 patients with blunt trauma, including 818 patients (2.40% of all patients; 95% confidence interval [CI] 2.40% to 2.40%) having a total of 1,496 distinct cervical spine injuries. Plain radiographs revealed 932 injuries in 498 patients (1.46% of all patients; 95% CI 1.46% to 1.46%) but missed 564 injuries in 320 patients (0.94% of all patients; 95% CI 0.94% to 0.94%). The majority of missed injuries (436 injuries in 237 patients [representing 0.80% of all patients]; 95% CI 0.80% to 0.80%) occurred in cases in which plain radiographs were interpreted as abnormal (but not diagnostic of injury) or inadequate. However, 23 patients (0.07% of all patients; 95% CI 0.05% to 0.09%) had 35 injuries (including 3 potentially unstable injuries) that were not visualized on adequate plain film imaging. These patients represent 2.81% (95% CI 1.89% to 3.63%) of all injured patients with blunt trauma undergoing radiographic evaluation.

Conclusion: Standard 3-view imaging provides reliable screening for most patients with blunt trauma. However, on rare occasions, such imaging may fail to detect significant unstable injuries. In addition, it is difficult to obtain adequate plain radiographic imaging in a substantial minority of patients.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bias
  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emergency Treatment / methods
  • Emergency Treatment / standards
  • False Negative Reactions
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Mass Screening / standards*
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiography / methods
  • Radiography / standards
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / classification
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnostic imaging*
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / epidemiology