Purpose: Cervical spine clearance in severely injured children after trauma is often difficult because of unique injury patterns, concerns about radiation exposure to growing tissue, and unfamiliarity with unstable cervical injuries. We prospectively assessed the utility of four radiographic modalities to clear the cervical spine in children after severe trauma.
Methods: Twenty-four comatose, intubated children with severe traumatic injuries underwent radiographic evaluation to clear the cervical spine. Each patient had plain radiographs, flexion-extension radiographs under fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging within 10 days of admission. Patients underwent cervical spine flexion-extension radiographs 2-3 months after trauma to detect late instability. Sensitivity and specificity for each radiographic modality was determined.
Results: Plain cervical spine radiographs demonstrated sensitivity of 100% and specificity of 95%; flexion-extension radiographs had “indeterminate” sensitivity and specificity of 100%. For CT, sensitivity was 100% and specificity was 95%, and for MR imaging, sensitivity was 100% and specificity was 74%.
Conclusions: There was a low prevalence of cervical instability in this high-risk group. Plain radiographs, flexion-extension radiographs, and CT all had high sensitivities and specificities. MR imaging had a high false-positive rate, making it sensitive but not specific. The data support using either CT or plain radiographs as the initial cervical spine screening study, but CT is recommended because of its superior ability to detect critical injuries. To definitively rule out ligamentous instability after a negative screening CT scan or cervical spine X-ray, these data support using flexion-extension X-rays with fluoroscopy and not MR imaging.