Clinical indications for cervical spine radiographs in the traumatized patient

Am J Surg. 1987 May;153(5):473-8. doi: 10.1016/0002-9610(87)90796-3.


During a 4 1/2 year period, 4,941 trauma patients were admitted to a hospital, and details of their injuries and treatment were entered in a computerized trauma registry. Using that database, patients with cervical spine injury were studied. Of the 4,941 patients, 1,823 (38 percent) had radiographs of the cervical spine. Ninety-four patients (5 percent) of these patients had injuries of the cervical spine or spinal cord. Sixty five of the 94 patients with cervical spine injury were alert. All had either neck pain or neck tenderness. We do not recommend screening cervical spine radiographs for the alert trauma patient without neck pain; however, we do recommend screening for all patients with decreased levels of consciousness and an injury that could have conceivably injured the cervical spine, for all patients with neurologic deficits compatible with a cervical origin, and for all patients with neck pain or tenderness. Lateral cervical spine radiographs were obtained in all injured patients. They demonstrated cervical spine injury in 70 patients (74 percent) and missed the injury in the remaining 24, which resulted in an unacceptable false-negative rate of 26 percent. We believe that all patients at risk for cervical spine injuries must have complete radiographic examinations of the cervical spine. Computerized axial tomography was the most useful modality to confirm a cervical spine injury in those patients whose lateral cervical spines appeared normal radiographically, especially in patients with associated head injury requiring computerized axial tomography of the brain. Computerized axial tomography diagnosed the injury in 14 of the 24 patients requiring study beyond initial screening. Also presented herein is a radiologic screening algorithm for cervical spine injuries in trauma patients.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Traffic
  • Brain Injuries / diagnostic imaging
  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Fractures, Bone / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Ligaments / injuries
  • Quadriplegia / etiology
  • Registries
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed