Study objective: Previous studies of cervical spine injury involve individual institutions or special populations. There is currently little reliable information regarding natural cervical spine injury patterns after blunt trauma. This substudy of the National Emergency X-Radiography Utilization Study project was designed to accurately assess the prevalence, spectrum, and distribution of cervical spine injury after blunt trauma.
Methods: We prospectively enrolled all patients with blunt trauma undergoing cervical spine radiography at 21 diverse institutions. Injury status was determined by review of all radiographic studies obtained on each patient. For each individual injury, we recorded which specific films revealed the injury, the level and location of injury on each vertebra, and the age and sex of the patient.
Results: Of 34,069 enrolled patients with blunt trauma, 818 (2.4%) individuals had a total of 1,496 distinct cervical spine injuries to 1,285 different cervical spine structures. The second cervical vertebra was the most common level of injury (286 [24.0%] fractures, including 92 odontoid fractures), and 470 (39.3%) fractures occurred in the 2 lowest cervical vertebrae (C6 and C7). The vertebral body, injured in 235 patients, was the most frequent site of fracture. Nearly one third of all injuries (29.3%) were considered clinically insignificant.
Conclusion: Cervical spine injuries occur in a small minority of patients with blunt trauma who undergo imaging. The atlantoaxial region is the most common site of injury, and the sixth and seventh vertebrae are involved in over one third of all injuries. Other spine levels are much more commonly involved than has previously been appreciated. A substantial minority of radiographically defined cervical spine injuries are of little clinical importance.