The inefficiency of plain radiography to evaluate the cervical spine after blunt trauma

J Trauma. 2005 Nov;59(5):1121-5. doi: 10.1097/


Background: Controversy persists regarding the most efficient and effective method of cervical spine evaluation after blunt trauma. Historic guidelines for patients undergoing computed tomography (CT) of the head advocate imaging the occiput-C2 as part of that study. For the remaining cervical spine, plain cervical spine radiographs (CSR) with supplemental CT are recommended. Many patients who require head CT also undergo supplemental cervical spine CT after plain CSR, which leads to separate, discontinuous cervical spine CT scans. We sought to determine the incidence of this in our population. We hypothesized that plain CSR alone often proves inadequate to evaluate the cervical spine in patients who require head CT.

Methods: The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma (EAST) guidelines for cervical spine evaluation after blunt trauma were previously adopted and followed during the study period from December 1, 2002 to July 1, 2003. Our protocol included cross-table lateral and anteroposterior CSR with the occiput-C2 imaged with the head CT. We used segmental cervical spine CT to supplement those regions inadequately visualized by plain films. The electronic charts of 848 consecutive blunt trauma victims were retrospectively reviewed. The data abstracted included demographics, injury severity score, and the use and results of head CT and radiographic evaluation of the cervical spine.

Results: Of 848 consecutive blunt trauma patients, 716 (84.4%) underwent head CT. Average age was 44 years old, and average Injury Severity Score was 9. Seventy-six patients (11.6%) had clinical cervical spine examination alone, whereas 640 (89.4%) underwent plain CSR. In 178 patients (27.8%), plain two-view CSR visualized the entire cervical spine. Plain CSR were inadequate to visualize the complete cervical spine in 462 patients (72.2%). Of these patients, segmental CT was performed in 400 (87.6%). The remaining 62 (13.4%) patients did not have radiologic completion of their cervical spine evaluation before clinical examination. Nineteen patients (3.0%) had cervical spine fractures diagnosed on CT, of which only 6 (31.6%) were seen on plain CSR. The sensitivity and specificity of CSR to detect fractures was 31.6 and 99.2%, respectively.

Conclusion: Plain CSR are inadequate to fully evaluate the cervical spine after blunt trauma, and supplemental CT is commonly required. Complete cervical spine CT is available, efficient, and accurate. Our findings support a growing body of literature that suggests that this modality should be used for blunt trauma patients who require radiographic evaluation of the cervical spine. Plain cervical spine radiographs need not be obtained. The EAST guidelines for cervical spine evaluation after blunt trauma should be updated to reflect this evolving practice pattern.

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnostic imaging*