Delayed Diagnosis of Cervical Spine Injuries

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Over a 32-month period, the cases of all patients with multiple injuries on whom cervical spine roentgenograms (CSRs) were obtained during blunt trauma evaluation in a trauma center were reviewed to determine the incidence, outcome, and clinical consequence of delayed diagnosis of cervical spine injuries. A total of 1,331 patients had CSRs following blunt injury. Sixty-one (4.6%) of the patients had documented cervical fractures or dislocations. The patients were seriously injured (mean Trauma Score, 12; mean Glasgow Coma Scale score, 11; and mean Injury Severity Score, 30.3). Eleven of the patients died in the trauma room; 9 with fatal atlantoaxial dislocation. Of the 50 survivors (81.9%), neurologic deficits were present in 15 (30%), and 8 of those had complete spinal cord injuries. The diagnosis of the cervical spine injury was made during the initial evaluation in 56 of the 61 patients (91.8%). Five patients had delayed recognition of their cervical spine injury (2–21 days). The reason for the delay was incomplete CSRs in all patients, despite multiple views (up to 13). The missed injuries occurred in patients in whom complete visualization of the spine was most difficult (i.e., severe degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine in two patients; previous cervical fractures in one patient; instability during resuscitation in one patient). Radiologic misinterpretation occurred in one patient. The diagnosis of cervical spine injury was pursued because of persistent neck pain in two patients, and the development of subtle neurologic findings in three. The neurologic deficits in the three patients resolved. The sensitivity of the CSRs in this series was 85.2%. The sensitivity of computed tomography (CT) was 97.2%. The occurrence of unrecognized injuries in patients with multiple injuries was 0.4%. In patients in whom obtaining complete CSRs is very difficult, early use of CT is recommended. Maintenance of precautions for cervical spine injuries in high-risk blunt-injured patients until complete radiologic visualization of the spine has been accomplished will minimize the consequences of unrecognized injuries.

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