Tag Archives: Cervical spine

Cervical Spine Clearance in Obtunded Patients

Cervical spine clearance in obtunded trauma patients has always been controversial. Most physicians believe that evaluation of bones and ligaments is required, although there is a minority that say that the spine can be cleared purely by radiographs. This would greatly simplify the process and decrease costs.

A prospective study was presented at EAST in January that evaluated the use of CT alone to clear the c-spine in these patients. It was presented by Claridge et al from MetroHealth in Cleveland, and is an expansion of an earlier prospective they performed. Based on the original study, the protocol was revised and the results of this re-study was presented.

The study involved 197 patients who were victims of blunt trauma, obtunded, and were noted to move all extremities. Short term mortality was 13% and long term mortality was 27%, which shows how badly injured this group was. The average ISS was 23 and the initial GCS was 8.

The following radiographic criteria were used to diagnose a significant c-spine injury:

  • Fracture line extending on 2 consecutive CT slices
  • Marked prevertebral soft tissue swelling or hematoma
  • Malalignment not explained by degenerative changes
  • Abnormal facets or posterior malalignment on sagittal reconstruction
  • Occipital condyle injury involving the craniocervical junction

Followup was performed either by re-examination after awakening (62%), followup by phone or chart review (12%), or MRI for persistent c-spine pain (2%). Thirteen percent died before re-evaluation, and 11% were lost to followup.

Using this protocol, the average hospital day of clearance decreased from 7.5 to 3.3, the incidence of decubitus ulcer from the collar decreased from 5% to 0.5%, and the average length of stay decreased from 23 to 14 days. All of these results were statistically significant.

The authors recognized that long term followup was lacking in this study and there was the potential for missed injury. Power calculations show that there are not enough patients enrolled to give a statistically sound result. The issue of spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality (SCIWORA) is always a possibility.

The bottom line: clearance based on radiographs alone is still not ready for prime time. Some injuries will ultimately be missed, and a fraction of those can cause devastating injury. The real question to be answered is “How many missed injuries is okay?” Until more and better work is done, some combination of radiographic and clinical techniques must be used.

Reference: A normal CT alone may clear the cervical spine in obtunded blunt trauma patients with gross extremity movement – a prospective evaluation of a revised protocol. Claridge et al, MetroHealth Medical Center. Presented at the 23rd Annual Scientific Assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, January 2010.

Nursing Policy: Cervical Spine Immobilization

The following is a sample nursing policy for c-spine immobilization.

Purpose: 

To outline the procedure for applying immobilizing the upper spine, including application of a cervical collar and “boarding” the patient. 

Policy: 

Application of a cervical collar and placing the patient on a backboard may be indicated for trauma patients with mechanisms of injury that place the patient at risk for spinal injury. This will not be necessary for patients with all of the following:

  • no posterior midline cervical tenderness
  • no evidence of intoxication
  • normal level of alertness (GCS 15)
  • no focal neurological deficit
  • no painful distracting injuries
  1. The MD or RN will maintain manual stabilization of the cervical spine until cervical collar is applied and patient is placed on backboard.
    * talk to the patient and tell them what you are doing- and not to move their head and neck
  2. Place hands on both sides of patient’s head with thumbs along mandible and fingers holding back of head. 
  3. Assistants will help with the rest of the application of the cervical collar and backboard. 
  4. Perform a baseline CMS assessment of the extremities. 
  5. Remove jewelry from the neck and ears. 
  6. Choose an appropriately sized collar by measuring the distance (with fingers) between the top of the shoulder where the collar will rest and the chin. This same number of fingers will fit between the fastener on the collar and the bottom edge of the rigid plastic of the collar. 
  7. Cervical collar is assembled by snapping the fastener into the hole on the side of the collar 
  8. Adjustable rigid cervical collars are measured from the bottom edge of the rigid plastic to the red circle denoting the size of the collar (red circle will move up or down as size of the collar is adjusted) 
  9. Slide the back of the collar behind the right side of the neck until the Velcro tab is visible on the left side of the neck. 
  10. Slide the chin portion up the chest until the chin fits in the collar. 
  11. Secure the Velcro when the collar is on straight (nose, circle on chin portion of collar, and umbilicus are in alignment). 
  12. Place the patient on a slide board with all team members working in a smooth fashion which moves the patient’s spine as little as possible. Patients already in bed will be log rolled and slider board inserted.
    * Do not obtain a rectal temperature while the patient is turned unless the MD specifically requests this.
  13. Recheck CMS. 
  14. The MD or RN can now remove hands from head. 
  15. Document both CMS checks and procedure in patient’s record.

How Do I Clear the Pediatric Cervical Spine?

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding clearing the cervical spine in children. The trauma and emergency medicine literature have few high quality studies to base recommendations on. However, a few very good studies have been carried out that did include children, and they are the basis for this suggested method for clearance.

There are a few key concepts that must be understood before approaching spine clearance in this patient group.

  1. Clinical clearance is key! The majority of children’s cervical spines can be cleared clinically
  2. Limit routine radiographic evaluation, especially by CT. The head and neck is packed with glandular tissue that is sensitive to radiation, especially in early childhood.
  3. If radiographs are required, be sure to have them read by a radiologist who routinely reads pediatric images. There are many nuances in ossification and bony positioning that may falsely lead to injury diagnoses.
  4. Memorize the NEXUS criteria. This study included enough children to allow treatment recommendations to be validated. They are:
    • Midline cervical tenderness
    • Focal neurologic deficit
    • Altered level of consciousness
    • Evidence of intoxication
    • Painful distracting injury

The first step is to determine whether the child is eligible to be clinically cleared. They must be able to verbalize and cooperate with your exam. They may not have a developmental delay, since this may interfere their ability to cooperate with your exam. Frequently, younger children are apprehensive around doctors, and I recommend that you have a parent perform appropriate parts of the exam under your verbal guidance.

Next, evaluate to see if any of the NEXUS critieria are met. The distracting injury criterion is the most difficult to assess. This is a judgment call, but if the child is aware of multiple potentially painful areas, then a distracting injury is probably not present.

If no NEXUS criteria are met, the spine is cleared and should be documented as such. If any are present, a lateral cervical spine xray should be ordered. If the child is >8 years old, a plain odontoid xray should also be obtained. If all are normal, the spine is cleared and should be documented. Children 8 or younger do not have an odontoid that visualizes well. In such cases, a CT from occiput to the base of C2 should be obtained, with appropriate shielding in place.

If, at any point, an abnormality is encountered, expert consultation must be sought in order to safely clear the cervical spine and remove any stabilization.