Diving injuries of the cervical spine

Surg Neurol. 1990 Sep;34(3):155-8. doi: 10.1016/0090-3019(90)90064-v.


From 1975 to 1986, 2435 patients were admitted to the Northwestern University-Midwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury Unit. Of these, 220 patients (9.0%) had documented neck fractures from diving accidents, representing the largest series of acute diving injuries yet analyzed. The average age of these patients was 21 years, and males predominated. Two hundred twelve patients (96.4%) were admitted within 48 hours of injury. Associated injuries were rare: none had intracranial mass lesions or systemic injuries, and only nine were near-drowning victims who required endotracheal intubation. The most common levels of injury were C-5 (140 fractures) and C-6 (85 fractures), with 70 patients having fractures at more than one level. Neurological injury was sustained in 154 (70.0%) patients, while 66 (30.0%) patients were neurologically intact. One hundred forty-seven (66.8%) patients underwent posterior cervical fusion, and anterior fusion was performed in 36 (16.4%), allowing for early ambulation and an average hospital stay of 17 days. Hospitalization was relatively uncomplicated, with urinary tract infection in 121 (55.0%), pneumonia in nine (4.1%), and deep vein thrombosis in 24 (10.9%). Long-term follow up averaged 5 years and was obtained in 160 (72.7%) patients. Sixteen (10.0%) improved neurologically, five (3.1%) deteriorated, and 139 (86.9%) were unchanged. Notably, this large study shows that diving accidents occur in a young, healthy population who sustain essentially no other associated intracranial or systemic injuries and have few serious hospital complications. Such patients may be mobilized early in their care after either internal or external stabilization. Subsequent long-term neurological improvement can be expected to occur in about 10% of patients. The importance of water safety and injury prevention is stressed.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Diving / injuries*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / therapy