Thoracolumbar fracture in blunt trauma patients: guidelines for diagnosis and imaging

Injury. 2003 Jun;34(6):426-33. doi: 10.1016/s0020-1383(02)00368-6.


Objective: The aim of the study was to determine a clinical diagnostic pathway for the imaging of the thoracolumbar spine in blunt trauma patients.

Method: A literature review was undertaken to determine the factors important in the detection of thoracolumbar injury and also to produce a trial protocol, which could be tested retrospectively. Two hundred patients admitted between 1998 and 2000 were reviewed retrospectively to form a database of the relevant clinical features. The diagnostic pathway protocol was tested retrospectively in two groups; one hundred with known thoracolumbar fractures and one hundred undifferentiated multi-trauma patients. Sensitivity and specificity indices were determined using the chi-squared test of association.

Results: Falls and motor vehicle crashes were the most common mechanism of injury causing thoracolumbar fractures. No significant association could be found between mechanism of injury (MOI) and presence of thoracolumbar fracture. Clinical signs found to be associated with thoracolumbar fracture include: (1) back pain/midline tenderness (Sens 62.1% Spec 91.5%), (2) palpable midline step (Sens 13.8% Spec 100%), (3) back bruising (Sens 6.9% Spec 98.6%), (4) abnormal neurological signs (Sens 41.4% Spec 95.8%). Cervical level fractures were also found to be associated with an increased incidence of thoracolumbar fractures. Factors found to influence the detection of back pain/midline tenderness include: (1) GCS<15, (2) ETOH/drug intoxication, (3) major distracting injury. The proposed diagnostic pathway would have led to 92% of patients receiving TL imaging in group 2 (multi-trauma) with a sensitivity of 100%, specificity of 11.3% and a negative predictive value of 100%.

Conclusion: From the literature and the results of the study, we propose that imaging of the thoracolumbar spine is required in those patients suffering from a high force mechanism of injury if any of the following are present: (1) back pain/midline tenderness, (2) local signs of thoracolumbar injury, (3) abnormal neurological signs, (4) cervical spine fracture, (5) GCS<15, (6) major distracting injury, (7) ETOH/ drug intoxication. An evidence based diagnostic pathway has been shown to be highly sensitive in determining the presence of TL fracture in a retrospective study of blunt trauma patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Fractures / diagnosis*
  • Thoracic Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnosis*