Pediatric cervical spine in emergency: radiographic features of normal anatomy, variants and pitfalls

Skeletal Radiol. 2016 Dec;45(12):1607-1617. doi: 10.1007/s00256-016-2481-9. Epub 2016 Sep 20.


Injuries of the cervical spine are uncommon in children. The distribution of injuries, when they do occur, differs according to age. Young children aged less than 8 years usually have upper cervical injuries because of the anatomic and biomechanical properties of their immature spine, whereas older children, whose biomechanics more closely resemble those of adults, are prone to lower cervical injuries. In all cases, the pediatric cervical spine has distinct radiographic features, making the emergency radiological analysis of it difficult. Such features as hypermobility between C2 and C3, pseudospread of the atlas on the axis, pseudosubluxation, the absence of lordosis, anterior wedging of vertebral bodies, pseudowidening of prevertebral soft tissue and incomplete ossification of synchondrosis can be mistaken for traumatic injuries. The interpretation of a plain radiograph of the pediatric cervical spine following trauma must take into account the age of the child, the location of the injury and the mechanism of trauma. Comprehensive knowledge of the specific anatomy and biomechanics of the childhood spine is essential for the diagnosis of suspected cervical spine injury. With it, the physician can, on one hand, differentiate normal physes or synchondroses from pathological fractures or ligamentous disruptions and, on the other, identify any possible congenital anomalies that may also be mistaken for injury. Thus, in the present work, we discuss normal radiological features of the pediatric cervical spine, variants that may be encountered and pitfalls that must be avoided when interpreting plain radiographs taken in an emergency setting following trauma.

Keywords: Anatomy; Pediatric spine; Radiograph; Variants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / anatomy & histology
  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Child
  • Emergencies
  • Humans
  • Radiography
  • Spinal Diseases
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnostic imaging*