Cervical spine trauma associated with moderate and severe head injury: incidence, risk factors, and injury characteristics

J Neurosurg. 2002 Apr;96(3 Suppl):285-91. doi: 10.3171/spi.2002.96.3.0285.


Object: Diagnosing and managing cervical spine trauma in head-injured patients is problematic due to an altered level of consciousness in such individuals. The reported incidence of cervical spine trauma in head-injured patients has generally ranged from 4 to 8%. In this retrospective study the authors sought to define the incidence of cervical injury in association with moderate or severe brain injury, emphasizing the identification of high-risk patients.

Methods: The study included 447 consecutive moderately (209 cases) or severely (238 cases) head injured patients who underwent evaluation at two Level 1 trauma centers over a 40-month period. Of the 447 patients, 24 (5.4%) suffered a cervical spine injury (17 men and seven women; mean age 39 years; median Glasgow Coma Scale [GCS] score of 6, range 3-14). Of these 24 patients, 14 (58.3%) sustained spinal cord injuries (SCIs), 14 sustained injuries in the occiput-C3 region, and 10 underwent a stabilization procedure. Of the 14 patients with SCIs, nine experienced an early hypotensive and/or hypoxic insult. Regarding the mechanism of injury, cervical injuries occurred in 21 (8.2%) of 256 patients involved in motor vehicle accidents (MVAs), either as passengers or pedestrians, compared with three (1.6%) of 191 patients with non-MVA-associated trauma (p < 0.01). In the subset of 131 MVA passengers, 13 (9.9%) sustained cervical injuries. Patients with an initial GCS score less than or equal to 8 were more likely to sustain a cervical injury than those with a score higher than 8 (odds ratio [OR] 2.77, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.11-7.73) and were more likely to sustain a cervical SCI (OR 5.5, 95% CI 1.22-24.85). At 6 months or more postinjury, functional neurological recovery had occurred in nine patients (37.5%) and eight (33.3%) had died.

Conclusions: Head-injured patients sustaining MVA-related trauma and those with an initial GCS score less than or equal to 8 are at highest risk for concomitant cervical spine injury. A disproportionate number of these patients sustain high cervical injuries, the majority of which are mechanically unstable and involve an SCI. The development of safer and more rapid means of determining cervical spine integrity should remain a high priority in the care of head-injured patients.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain Injuries / complications*
  • Brain Injuries / epidemiology
  • Brain Injuries / physiopathology
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Glasgow Coma Scale
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Recovery of Function / physiology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / epidemiology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology