Airway Management Practice in Adults With an Unstable Cervical Spine: The Harborview Medical Center Experience

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Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Airway management in the presence of acute cervical spine injury (CSI) is challenging. Because it limits cervical spine motion during tracheal intubation and allows for neurological examination after the procedure, awake fiberoptic bronchoscopy (FOB) has traditionally been recommended. However, with the widespread availability of video laryngoscopy (VL), its use has declined dramatically. Our aim was to describe the frequency of airway management techniques used in patients with CSI at our level I trauma center and report the incidence of neurological injury attributable to airway management.

METHODS:

Adults presenting to the operating room with CSI without a tracheal tube in situ between September 2010 and June 2017 were included. All patients were intubated in the presence of manual-in-line stabilization, a hard cervical collar, or surgical traction. Worsening neurological status was defined as new motor or sensory deficits on postoperative examination.

RESULTS:

Two hundred fifty-two patients were included, of which 76 (30.2%) had preexisting neurological deficits. VL was the most frequent initial airway management technique used (49.6%). Asleep FOB was commonly performed alone (30.6%) or in conjunction with VL (13.5%). Awake FOB was rarely performed (2.3%), as was direct laryngoscopy (2.8%). All techniques were associated with high first-attempt success rates, and no cases of neurological injury attributable to airway management technique were identified.

CONCLUSIONS:

Among patients with acute CSI at a high-volume academic trauma center, VL was the most commonly used initial intubation technique. Awake FOB and direct laryngoscopy were performed infrequently. No cases of neurological deterioration secondary to airway management occurred with any method. Assuming care is taken to limit neck movement, providers should use the intubation technique with which they have the most comfort and skill.

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