Study hypothesis: Cervical-spine radiography does not need to be performed on selected blunt trauma patients who are awake, alert, nonintoxicated, do not complain of midline neck pain, and have no tenderness over the bony cervical spine.
Study population: One thousand consecutive patients seen in the UCLA Emergency Medicine Center with a chief complaint of blunt trauma, for whom cervical-spine films were ordered and for whom prospective data questionnaires were completed.
Methods: Clinicians completed data forms for each patient before radiograph results were known. Data items included mechanism of injury, evidence of intoxication, presence of cervical-spine pain and/or tenderness, level of alertness, presence of focal neurologic deficits, and presence of other severely painful injuries unrelated to the cervical spine. Physicians were also asked to estimate likelihood of significant cervical-spine injury.
Results: Twenty-seven patients with cervical-spine fracture were among the 974 patients for whom data forms were completed. A number of findings were statistically more common in the group of patients with fracture than without, but no single or paired findings identified all patients with fracture. All 27 patients with fracture had at least one of the following four characteristics: midline neck tenderness, evidence of intoxication, altered level of alertness, or a severely painful injury elsewhere. Three hundred fifty-three of 947 (37.3%) patients without cervical-spine fracture had none of these findings.
Conclusion: Cervical-spine radiology may not be necessary in patients without spinous tenderness in the neck, intoxication, altered level of alertness, or other severely painful injury. A policy to limit films in such patients would have decreased film ordering by more than one third in this series, while identifying all patients with fracture.