Context: High levels of variation and inefficiency exist in current clinical practice regarding use of cervical spine (C-spine) radiography in alert and stable trauma patients.
Objective: To derive a clinical decision rule that is highly sensitive for detecting acute C-spine injury and will allow emergency department (ED) physicians to be more selective in use of radiography in alert and stable trauma patients.
Design: Prospective cohort study conducted from October 1996 to April 1999, in which physicians evaluated patients for 20 standardized clinical findings prior to radiography. In some cases, a second physician performed independent interobserver assessments.
Setting: Ten EDs in large Canadian community and university hospitals.
Patients: Convenience sample of 8924 adults (mean age, 37 years) who presented to the ED with blunt trauma to the head/neck, stable vital signs, and a Glasgow Coma Scale score of 15.
Main outcome measure: Clinically important C-spine injury, evaluated by plain radiography, computed tomography, and a structured follow-up telephone interview. The clinical decision rule was derived using the kappa coefficient, logistic regression analysis, and chi(2) recursive partitioning techniques.
Results: Among the study sample, 151 (1.7%) had important C-spine injury. The resultant model and final Canadian C-Spine Rule comprises 3 main questions: (1) is there any high-risk factor present that mandates radiography (ie, age >/=65 years, dangerous mechanism, or paresthesias in extremities)? (2) is there any low-risk factor present that allows safe assessment of range of motion (ie, simple rear-end motor vehicle collision, sitting position in ED, ambulatory at any time since injury, delayed onset of neck pain, or absence of midline C-spine tenderness)? and (3) is the patient able to actively rotate neck 45 degrees to the left and right? By cross-validation, this rule had 100% sensitivity (95% confidence interval [CI], 98%-100%) and 42.5% specificity (95% CI, 40%-44%) for identifying 151 clinically important C-spine injuries. The potential radiography ordering rate would be 58.2%.
Conclusion: We have derived the Canadian C-Spine Rule, a highly sensitive decision rule for use of C-spine radiography in alert and stable trauma patients. If prospectively validated in other cohorts, this rule has the potential to significantly reduce practice variation and inefficiency in ED use of C-spine radiography.