The adult cervical spine: implications for airway management

Can J Anaesth. 1990 Jan;37(1):77-93. doi: 10.1007/BF03007488.


Anaesthetists are responsible for the management of the airway in patients with unstable cervical spines. Unfortunately, the anaesthetic literature does not contain a recent, critical analysis of the current medical literature to aid anaesthetists attending such patients. This review is intended to serve such a purpose. Using the Index Medicus as a guide, 30 years of medical literature were reviewed, with emphasis on the last ten years. Key words employed for this review are cited in the manuscript. Relevant papers were selected from anaesthetic, orthopaedic, rheumatologic, emergency medicine and trauma journals and reviewed. Relevant findings included the high prevalence of cervical spinal instability in such disorders such as Trisomy 21 and rheumatoid arthritis and the relatively low incidence after trauma. There are deficiencies in the minimalist approaches to assessing the cervical spine, such as a simple cross table lateral radiograph after trauma, as they are neither sensitive nor specific. Finally, recognizing the potential for instability and intubating with care, while avoiding spinal movement, appears to be more important than any particular mode of intubation in preserving neurological function.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / complications
  • Cervical Vertebrae / abnormalities
  • Cervical Vertebrae / anatomy & histology*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries
  • Down Syndrome / complications
  • Fracture Fixation / methods
  • Humans
  • Intubation / methods*
  • Joint Instability / etiology*
  • Respiration, Artificial*