Radiographic clearance of blunt cervical spine injury: plain radiograph or computed tomography scan?

J Trauma. 2003 Aug;55(2):222-6; discussion 226-7. doi: 10.1097/01.TA.0000083332.93868.E2.


Background: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the roles of cervical spine radiographs (CSR) and computed tomography of the cervical spine (CTC) in the exclusion of cervical spine injury for adult blunt trauma patients.

Methods: At the authors' institution, all adult blunt trauma patients with physical findings of posterior midline neck tenderness, altered mental status, or neurologic deficit are considered at risk of cervical spine injury and undergo both CSR and CTC for evaluation of the cervical spine. The TRACS database at level 1 of the trauma center at this institution was queried for all blunt trauma patients from November 2000 to October 2001. Patient injury severity score (ISS), Glascow Coma Score (GCS), age, gender, CSR results, CTC results, and treatment data were analyzed.

Results: The review included 3,018 blunt trauma patients with appropriate data. For 1,199 of these patients (779 men and 420 women) (40%) at risk for cervical spine injury, both CSR and CTC were performed for cervical spine evaluation. The average age of these patients was 39.4 years (range, 18-89 years). The average GCS was 13 and the average ISS was 8.4 in this study population. In 116 (9.5%) of these patients, a cervical spine injury (fracture or subluxation) was detected. The injury was identified on both CSR and CTC in 75 of these patients. In the remaining 41 patients (3.2%), the CSR results were negative, but injury was detected by CTC. All these injuries missed by CSR required treatment. For this group with false-negative CSR, the average GCS was 12 and the average ISS was 14.6. There were no missed cervical spine injuries among the patients with negative CTC results.

Conclusion: No identifiable factors predicted false-negative CSR. There does not appear to be any role for CSR screening in this setting. The data from this study add to the growing body of evidence that CTC should replace CSR for the evaluation of the cervical spine in blunt trauma.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Female
  • Glasgow Coma Scale
  • Humans
  • Injury Severity Score
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Radiography*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Spinal Injuries / etiology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / complications
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnostic imaging*