Tag Archives: MRI

Do We Need Cervical MRI Scans If The CT Is Negative?

The debate on how to clear the cervical spine just never ends. We have finally come to some degree of agreement that certain patients (awake, alert, not impaired or head injured, without distracting injury) can undergo clinical clearance alone.

But if those criteria are not met, what next? Universally, adults receive a CT scan of the cervical spine. In the majority of centers, this is coupled with a good clinical examination. And if both are negative, the collar can be removed.

But recent literature suggest that a good, high-quality cervical CT read by a skilled neuroradiologist may be good enough. This has been demonstrated in several papers involving patients who are comatose or other-wise unable to participate with a clinical exam.

Many centers and trauma professionals are still reluctant to remove the cervical collar without that clinical examination. A new study asked the question: would an MRI provide additional, significant information over and above the CT scan in those patients who could not be examined or had persistent neck pain?

A consortium of 8 Level I and II trauma centers in New England participated in this study coordinated by Yale. Blunt trauma patients who underwent MRI after negative cervical CT were considered for the study. On further review, if they received the scan because they could not be clinically evaluated, or if they had complaints of persistent neck pain, they were enrolled. CT scanners with at least 64-slice capabilities were required. There was no mention of the qualifications or special experience of the radiologists reading the images at each center.

Here are the factoids:

  • 767 patients were enrolled in this 30-month study. A total of 43% were for persistent neck pain, 44% for inability to examine, and 9% for both.
  • Nearly a quarter had an abnormal MRI scan:
    • 17% ligamentous injury
    • 4% soft tissue swelling
    • 1% disk injury
    • 1% dural hematoma
  • The collar was removed in most (88%) patients with a normal MRI, but in only 13% with ab-normal MRI
  • 11 patients underwent a surgical procedure and half had neurologic signs or symptoms. 10 of them had ligamentous injury, 1 had dural hematoma, and 1 had both

Bottom line: Looks almost compelling, right? One would think that we had better get an MRI on all of these patients! But read more closely, please. Yes, injuries were found. But did they really “require” an intervention? For some injuries, it’s a chip shot. A three column ligamentous injury equals stabilization in any textbook. But management of lesser injuries is less clear. And could some of these injuries have been recognized by a skilled neuroradiologist reading the CT image?

So what to do? There is not enough data for a universal protocol yet. Unfortunately, you will need to develop your own institutional policy based on the experience and opinions of your spine and neurosurgeons. They are the ones who will have to deal with the decision making during and after these studies. Until the definitive study comes along.

Reference: Cervical spine MRI in patients with negative CT: A prospective, multicenter study of the Research Consortium of New England Centers for Trauma (ReCONECT). J Trauma 82(2):263-269, 2017.

Cervical Spine MRI After Negative CT


There are multiple ways to clear a cervical spine! Most centers use a combination of clinical decision tools and CT scan in adults. The gold standard tie breaker, warranted or not, seems to be MRI. This tool is only used in select cases where conventional imaging is in doubt, or the clinical exam is puzzling.

Some centers clear based on CT only as long as imaging is indicated. Some use MRI in cases where patients continue to complain of midline neck pain or tenderness after negative CT. A multi-center trial encompassing 8 Level I and II centers prospectively performed MRI on patients who could not be clinically evaluated, or had persistent midline cervical pain after normal CT.

A total of 767 patients were seen over a 30 month period. Besides looking at the usual data points, the authors were interested in new diagnoses and changes in management based on the MRI results.

Here are the factoids:

  • Neck pain and inability to evaluate occurred with equal frequency, about 45%; the remaining 10% had both
  • 23% of MRIs were abnormal, with 17% ligament injury, 4% swelling, 1% disk injury, and 1% dural hematomas.
  • Patients with normal and abnormal MRI had neurologic anomalies about equally (15-19%). [Why are these patients included? Were they initially not evaluable?]
  • The cervical collar was removed in 88% of patients with normal MRI (??), and in 13% with abnormal MRI
  • After (presumably) positive MRI, 14 (2%) underwent spine surgery; 8 of these had neurologic signs or symptoms

Bottom line: I’m a bit confused. If the authors were really trying to figure out the rate of abnormal MRI after negative CT, they should have excluded the patients with known neurologic findings. These patients should nearly always have an abnormal MRI. And why did they not take the collar off of the 12% of patients with both normal CT and MRI??

Hopefully, details in the presentation next week will help explain all this. I suspect that the study will show that there are cases where CT is normal but MRI is not. The abstract does not clearly describe how many of these are clinically significant.

I admit, I’m not very comfortable clearing the cervical spine in a patient with negative CT (even if read by a neuroradiologist) and obvious midline neck pain/tenderness. I hope this study helps clarify this issue. We shall see…

Reference: Cervical spine MRI in patients with negative CT: a prospective, multicenter study of the research consortium of New England centers for trauma (ReCONECT). AAST 2016, Paper 61.

Clearing The Cervical Spine With MRI

If you follow the trauma literature, clearance of the cervical spine in obtunded patients is confusing at best. Although there is some literature out there that suggests that a good cervical CT alone is adequate, I’m not a believer. I’ve seen a case where the radiologist called the scan normal and a good spine surgeon called an injury and was right. So I’m reluctant to use CT alone because the skills of radiologists vary widely. I might be able to believe a dedicated neuroradiologist, but you can’t guarantee one will be reading your patient’s images.

So I fall back on the routine of clearing the bones with a CT scan, and the ligaments with something else. That something else could be a clinical exam (not available in the obtunded patient), flexion-extension images under fluoroscopy (makes a lot of people nervous), keeping the patient in a collar for weeks (skin breakdown), or an MRI. The problem is that there is little guidance in the literature regarding how good MRI is or the best way to use it.

A recent paper in the Journal of Trauma retrospectively looked at 512 out of 17,000 patients (!) seen over 5 years at one trauma center who had both CT and MRI of the c-spine. They wanted to determine if MRI was of any value in cervical spine clearance. Only 150 met the inclusion criteria (GCS<13, no obvious neuro deficit, normal CT). Half of the MRIs were normal. Of the abnormal ones, 81% showed a ligamentous or soft tissue injury. None were deemed unstable and no specific management was needed for any of the abnormal scans.

The authors interpreted their data as showing that MRI provided no additional useful information. However, numbers were (very) small, so the likelihood of them seeing someone with an unstable ligamentous injury was low. Could it be that they showed that MRI detected stable injuries well, and that they could essentially remove the collar based on that?

Bottom line: We still don’t know how to use MRI for clearance. My bias (no good data I can find) is that it is good in suggesting ligamentous injury via nearby edema. If this injury involves only one set of ligaments, it is very likely a stable one and the collar can be removed. If it involves several groups of ligaments, that is probably not the case. And how soon do we have to get the MRI after injury? Some have suggested that 72 hours is the ideal window because edema decreases afterwards. Sounds reasonable, but I can’t find a shred of evidence in the literature. For now, I’ll get an MRI within 72 hours and if it is abnormal, pass the buck to my neurosurgical colleagues so they can gnash their teeth, too.

I would be very happy if someone can help me out and point me towards some good literature on this topic!

Reference: The value of cervical magnetic resonance imaging in the evaluation of the obtunded or comatose patient with cervical trauma, no other abnormal neurological findings, and a normal cervical computed tomography. J Trauma 72(3):699-702, 2012.