Cervical spine injury presents a host of problems, but one of the least appreciated ones is dysphagia. Many clinicians don’t even think of it, but it is a relatively common problem, especially in the elderly. Swallowing difficulties may arise for several reasons:
- Prevertebral soft tissue swelling may occur with high cervical spine injuries, leading to changes in the architecture of the posterior pharynx
- Rigid cervical collars, such as the Miami J and Aspen, and halo vests all force the neck into a neutral position. Elderly patients may have a natural kyphosis, and this change in positioning may interfere with swallowing. Try extending your neck by about 30 degrees and see how much more difficult it is to swallow.
- Patients with cervical fractures more commonly need a tracheostomy for ventilatory support and/or have a head injury, and these are well known culprits in dysphagia
A study in the Jan 2011 Journal of Trauma outlines the dysphagia problem seen with placement of a halo vest. They studied a series of 79 of their patients who were treated with a halo. A full 66% had problems with their swallowing evaluation. This problem was associated with a significantly longer ICU stay and a somewhat longer overall hospital stay.
Bottom line: Suspect dysphagia in all patients with cervical fractures, especially the elderly. Carry out a formal swallowing evaluation, and adjust the collar or halo if appropriate.
Reference: Swallowing dysfunction in trauma patients with cervical spine fractures treated with halo-vest fixation. J Trauma 70(1):46-50, 2011.