Spiral Computed Tomography for the Initial Evaluation of Spine Trauma: A New Standard of Care?

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Abstract

Background:

Although spiral computed tomographic scanning (SCT) is frequently used for spinal imaging in injured patients, many trauma centers continue to rely on plain film radiography (PFR). The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of a trauma center's transition from PFR to SCT for initial spine evaluation in trauma patients by comparing diagnostic sensitivity, time required for radiographic imaging, costs, charges, and radiation exposure.

Methods:

Registry-based review of all trauma patients evaluated for spinal trauma during two three-month intervals, one before (1999, “X-ray Group”), and one after (2002, “CT Group”) adopting SCT as the initial spinal imaging method. Demographic data, mechanism of injury, Injury Severity Score (ISS), the presence and location of spine fractures, and the results of all spine imaging were recorded. The dates and diagnostic sensitivity for spine fractures, time for initial imaging, costs, and charges were compared between groups. Radiation exposure associated with both SCT and PFR of the spine was measured.

Results:

There were 254 patients in the X-ray Group and 319 in the CT Group, with similar demographic data, ISS, mechanism of injury, and incidence of spine fractures. Sensitivity in the detection of spine fractures was 70% (14 out of 20) in the X-ray Group compared with 100% (34 out of 34) for the CT Group (p < 0.001). Mean time in the radiology department during initial evaluation decreased significantly in the CT Group compared with the X-ray Group (1.0 hours vs. 1.9 hours; p < 0.001). SCT of the spine was associated with higher mean overall spinal imaging charges than PFR ($4,386 vs. $513, p < 0.001), but a similar mean overall spinal imaging cost per patient ($172 vs. $164). Radiation exposure was higher with SCT versus PFR for cervical spine imaging (26 mSv vs. 4 mSv) but SCT involved lower levels of exposure than PFR for thoracolumbar imaging (13 mSv vs. 26 mSv).

Conclusions:

SCT is a more rapid and sensitive modality for evaluating the spine compared with PFR and is obtained at a similar cost. The advantages of SCT suggest that this readily available diagnostic modality may replace PFR as the standard of care for the initial evaluation of the spine in trauma patients.

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