Objective: Although atlanto-occipital dislocation has long been recognized as an extremely unstable and often lethal injury, no single radiodiagnostic criterion published to date has achieved failure-proof status. This is because most existing diagnostic tests exploit bony landmarks remote from the injured condyle-C1 (OC1) joint so that patient positioning could inadvertently line up these landmarks and conceal actual disruption of the joint. Many of the landmarks used are wide apart and/or noncoplanar; their measurements are subject to errors related to x-ray angle, target-film distance, and superimposed bony outlines. We propose using the actual occipital condyle-C1 interval (CCI) obtained from high-resolution reconstructed computed tomographic scans as the indicator for OC1 joint disruption. We hypothesize that the normal CCI is very small and has great left-right symmetry and that atlanto-occipital dislocation is always manifested by an abnormal widening of the CCI and/or by left-right joint asymmetry irrespective of the shifting of other remote bony landmarks. Part I of this study establishes standard normal values for CCI in children.
Method: Sagittal and coronal reformatted images were obtained from thin axial computed tomographic scans performed on 89 children, 18 for nontraumatic complaints and 71 as part of a minor head trauma protocol but later exonerated for cervical injury. The interval between condyle and C1 was measured at four equidistant points on the joint surface on the sagittal and coronal images of all 178 joints (left and right) in the group. Sagittal and coronal CCIs are the means of four sagittal and four coronal measurements, respectively. The combined or true CCI for an individual joint was taken as the mean of both the sagittal and coronal (total of eight) measurements.
Results: The mean combined CCI of all 178 joints was 1.28 mm +/- 0.26 (standard deviation [SD]). None of the 178 CCIs exceeded 1.95 mm, and none of the individual joint interval measurements exceeded 2.5 mm. Left-right symmetry was tested by computing the mean left-right difference in CCI from all 89 subjects equal to 0.047 mm +/- 0.002 (SD); or only 3% of the mean combined CCI. When the mean of all right CCIs (1.333 mm +/- 0.31 SD) is contrasted with the mean of all left CCIs (1.327 mm +/- 0.30 SD), the difference is 0.006 mm, or 1.09% of the mean total CCI (P = 0.792). Left-right symmetry is also apparent in conformational anatomy in both sagittal and coronal images. Linear regression analysis between CCI and age shows no statistical difference in CCI between age groups from 0.5 to 18 years. Linear regression performed separately on the right and left CCIs suggests that left-right symmetry is also stable through this age range.
Conclusion: The normal OC1 joint in children 0 to 18 years is tightly held together by ligaments with a mean CCI of 1.28 mm in the 89 subjects tested. There is great left-right joint symmetry in both CCI and conformational anatomy. CCI and left-right symmetry do not appear to change significantly with age. It is reasonable to set a maximum CCI as a discriminator between normal and disrupted OC1 joints to indicate atlanto-occipital dislocation.