Tag Archives: CT

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.

IV Contrast and Trauma

We use CT scanning in trauma care so much that we tend to take it (and its safety) for granted. I’ve written quite a bit about thoughtful use of radiographic studies to achieve a reasonable patient exposure to xrays. But another thing to think about is the use of IV contrast.

IV contrast is a hyperosmolar solution that contains some substance (usually an iodine compound) that is radiopaque to some degree. It has been shown to have a significant impact on short-term kidney function and in some cases can cause renal failure.

Here are some facts you need to know:

  • Contrast nephrotoxicity is defined as a 25% increase in serum creatinine, usually within the first 3 days after administration
  • There is usually normal urine output and minimal to no proteinuria
  • In most cases, renal function returns to normal after 3-4 days
  • Nephrotoxicity almost never occurs in people with normal baseline kidney function
  • Large or repeated doses given within 72 hours greatly increase risk for toxicity
  • Old age and pre-existing diabetic renal impairment also greatly increase risk

If you must give contrast to a patient who is at risk, make sure they are volume expanded (tough in trauma patients), or consider giving acetylcysteine or using isosmolar contrast (controversial, may still cause toxicity).

Bottom line: If you are considering contrast CT, try to get a history to see if the patient is at risk for nephrotoxicity. Also consider all of the studies that will be needed and try to consolidate your contrast dosing. For example, you can get CT chest/abdomen/pelvis and CT angio of the neck with one contrast bolus. Consider low dose contrast injection if the patient needs formal angiographic studies in the IR suite. Always think about the global needs of your patient and plan accordingly (and safely).

Reference: Contrast media and the kidney. British J Radiol 76:513-518, 2003.

Torso Trauma CT (Nearly) ALWAYS Requires Contrast

Most stable patients with blunt trauma undergo CT scanning these days. Hopefully, it’s done thoughtfully to optimize the risk/benefit ratio using a well-designed imaging protocol. The majority of these torso imaging protocols call for the use of IV contrast. But as I’ve written before, this can pose risks, especially to the elderly and others who have some degree of renal impairment.

Unfortunately, I occasionally encounter scans done at other hospitals that omit the use of contrast. This usually hinders diagnosis significantly. And it’s usually not clear why this happened, so let’s think about it a bit.

The use of contrast in CT is designed to show blood, or things that are filled with lots of blood. Specifically, a great deal of detail about the blood vessels and solid organs is displayed.

Let’s break it down by type of scan:

  • Chest – we are really only interested in the aorta. The only way to reliably demonstrate an aortic injury is by using contrast. And this is one of those injuries that, if you miss it, the patient is very likely to die from it. Therefore, if you are ordering a chest CT properly, you must add contrast.
  • Abdomen/pelvis – generally, we are looking for solid organ injury, potential mesenteric injuries, and extravasation of blood from organs or soft tissue. Once again, the only way to really see any of these is with contrast enhancement.
  • Vascular – CT is replacing conventional angiography for the investigation of vascular injury in many cases. Obviously, this study is worthless without the contrast.

Bottom line: Pretty much any CT of the chest, blood vessels, or abdomen/pelvis must have IV contrast injected for accurate diagnosis. But what if your patient is old, or is known to have some degree of renal impairment? First, decide if you can wait until a point of care or standard creatinine measurement is done. If you can, use the result to do your own risk/benefit calculation. Is the injury you are worried about potentially life-threatening AND reasonably likely? Are there other less harmful ways to detect it? Then use them. And if you really do need the study in a patient with renal dysfunction, give the contrast, monitor the serum creatinine regularly, and do what you can to optimize and protect their renal function over the next several days.

CT Cystography For Bladder Trauma

Bladder injury after blunt trauma is relatively uncommon, but needs to be identified promptly. Nearly every patient (97%+) with a bladder injury will have hematuria that is visible to the naked eye. This should prompt the trauma professional to obtain a CT of the abdomen/pelvis and a CT cystogram.

The CT of the abdomen and pelvis will identify any renal or ureteral (extremely rare!) source for the hematuria. The CT cystogram will demonstrate a bladder injury, but only if done properly!

During most trauma CT scanning of the abdomen and pelvis, the bladder is allowed to passively fill, either by having no urinary catheter and having the patient hold it, or by clamping the catheter if it is present. Unfortunately, this does not provide enough pressure to demonstrate small intraperitoneal bladder injuries and most extraperitoneal injuries.

The proper technique involves infusing contrast into the bladder through a urinary catheter. At least 350cc of dilute contrast solution must be instilled for proper distension and accurate diagnosis. This can be done prior to the abdominal scan. Once the initial scan has been obtained, the bladder must be emptied and a focused scan of just the bladder should be performed (post-void images). Several papers have shown that this technique is as accurate as conventional retrograde cystography, with 100% sensitivity and specificity for intraperitoneal ruptures. The sensitivity for extraperitoneal injury was slightly less at 93%.

Bottom line: Gross hematuria equals CT of the abdomen/pelvis and a proper CT cystogram, as described above. Don’t try to cheat and passively fill the bladder. You will miss about half of these injuries!

Related posts:

Reference: CT cystography with multiplanar reformation for suspected bladder rupture: experience in 234 cases. Am J Roentgenol 187(5):1296-302, 2006.

Intraperitoneal bladder rupture

Extraperitoneal bladder injury

CT Scan Image Settings Simplified

Ever wonder what is going on when you drag your mouse across a CT image, or when you change the “window” settings of an image from lung to abdomen? It all has to do with the way CT generated xray information is displayed, and how your eyes and brain perceive it.

Let’s get down to basics. The first thing needed is to understand the concept of radiodensity. The CT scanner uses a set of software algorithms to determine the amount of x-radiation absorbed by every element in a plane of tissue. Each of these elements is represented by a pixel on the video display, and the density (amount of x-radiation absorbed) is measured in Hounsfield units. This scale was developed by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, who set the radiodensity of water at 0, and air at -1000. The scale extends in the positive direction to about +4000, which represents very dense metals. See the table for the density of common substances on CT.

When you view a CT scan on a video display, two important numbers are displayed on screen. The first is the window width (W), which describes the range of Hounsfield units displayed. The maximum window width possible is usually about 2000, but our eyes are not capable of seeing this many shades. Actually, we can really only distinguish about 16 shades of gray. So the window width is divided by 16, and each group of Hounsfield values is converted to one of 16 shades of gray. The lowest Hounsfield numbers in the window range are shown as black, and the highest are white.

The second important number is the window level (L). This is the Hounsfield number in the center of the window width. So let’s look at some typical examples of W/L settings.

The abdomen contains mostly soft tissue, which is just a little denser than water. So most of the abdominal contents have Hounsfield values from 0 to 100 or so. A typical abdominal scan W/L setting is 350/50. This means that a total range of 350 different densities are displayed, centered on a density of 50 Hounsfield units ( range is -125 to 225 HU). Each difference of 22 HU will show up as a different shade of gray. So this narrow window allows us to distinguish relatively subtle differences in density.

The chest cavities are primarily air-filled, and the lungs are very low density. So it makes sense that a typical lung W/L setting is 1500/-500. The window ranges from -1250 to +250 HU, and a wider range of 94 HU represents one shade of gray. This is typical of body regions with a wider range of densities.

Finally, bone windows are usually 2000/250. This window is centered above the usual tissue densities, and is very wide so that it shows a wide range of densities in only 16 shades of gray. Thus, the contrast appears very low.

On most displays, the window width increases as you drag the mouse to the right. This increases the range of densities in a shade of gray, thus decreasing the overall amount of contrast in the image. Dragging the mouse down decreases the window level, moving it toward the air end of the spectrum. This allows you to center your window on the type of tissue you are interested in viewing and adjust your ability to distinguish objects with a lot or only a little contrast (see table above).

I apologize to my radiology colleagues in advance for this simplistic explanation. Trauma professionals have minimal exposure (pun intended) to the physics and details of radiographic imaging. We are much more interested in effectively using this technology to save our patients’ lives.