Objective: To determine whether forced flexion/extension (F/E) films for "clearing" the cervical spine in unconscious or semiconscious patients are useful or actually dangerous.
Design and patients: Of 810 patients admitted for blunt trauma over a 5-year period, 479 patients whose films and charts were available received passive F/E film views of the cervical spine. Of these, 447 were reviewed retrospectively in masked fashion for any exacerbation of neurological changes subsequent to the procedure and with respect to the final neurological status at discharge.
Results: Twenty-nine patients (6%) had various abnormalities including fractures and ligamentous injuries seen on the initial films. Following forced F/E films no change was made in the diagnosis of 23 patients. Of the remaining six patients, two required no treatment, two only required the use of a collar but two did have surgical intervention, this decision being based on the findings seen in the initial films. However, 285 films (59%) were judged inadequate due either to inadequate F/E (150 patients, 31%) or poor visualization (194 patients, 40%). There were three false positives all subsequently cleared by other studies and there were no false negatives. From the chart review, there were no complications or deaths attributable to the procedure.
Conclusion: Although we were unable to find any complication or deaths directly attributable to the procedure, the clinicians abandoned passive F/E views in obtunded patients on the grounds of expense. Our present method of "clearing" a cervical spine in an obtunded patient is a cross-table lateral radiograph followed by a high-resolution thin-slice CT scan with sagittal and coronal reconstruction. We are against the use of routine MRI studies and of a forced F/E view in these patients.