Early Secondary Neurologic Deterioration After Blunt Spinal Trauma: A Review of the Literature

Acad Emerg Med. 2015 Oct;22(10):1200-12. doi: 10.1111/acem.12765. Epub 2015 Sep 22.


Objectives: The objectives were to review published reports of secondary neurologic deterioration in the early stages of care after blunt spinal trauma and describe its nature, context, and associated risk factors.

Methods: The authors searched the MEDLINE, EMBASE, and CINAHL databases for English-language studies. Cases were included meeting the criteria age 16 years or older, nonpenetrating trauma, and experiencing neurologic deterioration during prehospital or emergency department (ED) care prior to definitive management (e.g., discharge, spinal clearance by computed tomography, admission to an inpatient service, or surgical intervention). Results were qualitatively analyzed for characteristics and themes.

Results: Forty-one qualifying cases were identified from 12 papers. In 30 cases, the new deficits were apparently spontaneous and were not detected until routine reassessment. In 12 cases the authors did attribute deterioration to temporally associated precipitants, seven of which were possibly iatrogenic; these included removal of a cervical collar, placement of a halo device, patient agitation, performance of flexion/extension films, "unintentional manipulation," falling in or near the ED, and forced collar application in patients with ankylosing spondylitis. Thirteen cases occurred during prehospital care, none of them sudden and movement-provoked, and all reported by a single study.

Conclusions: Published reports of early secondary neurologic deterioration after blunt spinal trauma are exceptionally rare and generally poorly documented. High-risk features may include altered mental status and ankylosing spondylitis. It is unclear how often events are linked with spontaneous patient movement and whether such events are preventable.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Spinal Injuries / complications*
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnostic imaging
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / complications*
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnostic imaging