Study objective: We hypothesized that optimal positioning of the head and neck to protect the spinal cord during cervical spine immobilization can be determined with reference to external landmarks. In this study we sought to determine the optimal position for cervical spine immobilization using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and to define this optimal position in a clinically reproducible fashion.
Methods: Our subjects were 19 healthy adult volunteers (11 women, 8 men). In each, we positioned the head to produce various degrees of neck flexion and extension. This positioning was followed by quantitative MRI of the cervical spine.
Results: The mean ratio of spinal canal and spinal cord cross-sectional areas was smallest at C6 but exceeded 2.0 at all levels from C2 to T1 (P < .05). At the C5 and C6 levels, the maximal area ratio was most consistently obtained with slight flexion (cervical-thoracic angle of 14 degrees) (P < .05). For a patient lying flat on a backboard, this corresponds to raising the occiput 2 cm. More extreme flexion or extension produced variable results.
Conclusion: In healthy adults, a slight degree of flexion equivalent to 2 cm of occiput elevation produces a favorable increase in spinal canal/spinal cord ration at levels C5 and C6, a region of frequent unstable spine injuries.