Asymptomatic cervical spine fractures: Current guidelines can fail older patients

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Older adults represent a growing proportion of trauma patients treated in the United States, and cervical spine (c-spine) fracture is an injury that is increasingly common in this population. Neck pain is a major component of current clinical clearance guidelines, but some older adults with c-spine fractures report no neck pain after injury. The objective of this study was to investigate the frequency at which c-spine fractures were unassociated with neck pain in an aging population.


A retrospective review was performed for patients 55 years or older with a c-spine fracture during a 4-year study period. All patients had a Glasgow Coma Scale score of 15 and were considered asymptomatic if they did not complain of neck pain on initial presentation, denied tenderness to palpation of the c-spine on examination, and were without neurologic deficit. Differences between groups were assessed with Kruskal-Wallis and χ2 tests.


Of 173 patients with c-spine fractures, 36 (21%) were asymptomatic and reported no neck pain on presentation or on examination. The group without neck pain had higher median injury severity scores (15 vs 10; p < 0.001), were more likely to have another injured body region (69% vs 42%; p = 0.004), and had longer hospitalization (7 vs 5 days; p = 0.008) than patients with neck pain. Twenty-two percent of the symptomatic group and 19% of the asymptomatic group required halo, fusion, or other surgical intervention.


Study results indicate that one fifth of patients with a c-spine fracture reported no pain on initial presentation and denied tenderness to palpation on examination. The presence or absence of pain may be an unreliable indicator of c-spine fracture in an aging population. When used in conjunction with existing clearance guidelines, denial of pain may lead to missed injury. We recommend liberal c-spine imaging for older trauma patients with significant mechanism of trauma.


Therapeutic study, level III.

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