Thoracolumbar Evaluation in the Low-Risk Trauma Patient: A Pilot Study Towards Development of a Clinical Decision Rule to Avoid Unnecessary Imaging in the Emergency Department

J Emerg Med. 2019 Sep;57(3):279-289. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2019.06.010. Epub 2019 Aug 9.


Background: Thoracolumbar (TL) injury is a common finding in the severely injured multi-trauma patient. However, the incidence and pattern of TL injury in patients with milder trauma is unclear.

Objective: The aim of this study was to collect and analyze evidence for the development of a clinical decision rule (CDR) to evaluate the TL spine in patients with non-severe blunt trauma and avoid dedicated imaging in low-risk cases.

Methods: Adult patients with blunt trauma who presented to a major academic center (May 2016 to October 2017) and received dedicated imaging of the TL spine were included. Exclusion criteria consisted of any coexisting condition preventing the acquisition of history or examination. The primary endpoint is TL spine injury requiring orthopedic evaluation, bracing/orthosis, or surgery. Preliminary CDR derivation was performed with recursive partitioning.

Results: Of 4612 patients screened, 1049 (22.7%) met inclusion criteria. Thirty-six (3.4%) patients were found to have TL spine injury, of which 88.9% received spinal bracing, orthosis, or surgery. Absence of midline tenderness conveyed the highest negative predictive value, followed by a non-severe mechanism of injury, lack of neurologic examination findings, and age < 65 years. No patients in this cohort with these four findings had a TL spine injury.

Conclusions: In certain lower-risk blunt trauma patients < 65 years of age, focused examination combined with mechanism of injury may be highly sensitive (100%) to rule out TL injury without the need for dedicated imaging. However, validation is necessary, given multiple study limitations. Potential instrument to screen for TL injury in minor trauma: TL injury is unlikely if all four of the following are present: 1) no midline back tenderness or deformity, 2) no focal neurologic signs or symptoms or altered mentation, 3) age < 65 years; and 4) lack of severe mechanism of injury, for example, fall greater than standing, motor-vehicle collision with rollover/ejection/pedestrian or unenclosed vehicle, and assault with a weapon.

Keywords: blunt; imaging; rule; spine; thoracolumbar; trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Clinical Decision Rules*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physical Examination / standards*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Spinal Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Thoracic Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Unnecessary Procedures
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / complications
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnosis*