Prospective Comparison of Admission Computed Tomographic Scan and Plain Films of the Upper Cervical Spine in Trauma Patients with Altered Mental Status

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ObjectiveThe accurate evaluation of patients with multiple injuries is logistically complex and time sensitive, and must be cost-effective. We hypothesize that computed tomographic (CT) scan of the upper cervical spine (occiput to C3 [Co-C3]) would add little to the initial evaluation of patients with multiple injuries who have altered mental status.MethodsThe study consisted of a prospective, unblinded, consecutive series. Patients met entry criteria if they had sustained a blunt mechanism of injury and had an altered mental status requiring CT scan of two or more body systems. All patients received CT scan of Co-C3 with 2-mm cuts and subsequent reconstructions as well as five-view cervical spine plain films. Cervical spine injury was defined as any radiographically identified fracture or subluxation that required treatment. Patients were excluded if they died or were cleared clinically before plain film series were obtained. CT scan of Co-C3 and cervical spine films were reviewed by two different attending radiologists.ResultsOf the 2,690 consecutive admissions between December 1998 and November 1999, 1,356 patients met entry criteria. Seventy patients (5.2%) had a total of 95 injuries to the upper cervical spine. CT scan of Co-C3 identified 67 of 70 patients and plain films identified 38 of 70 patients with injuries to the upper cervical spine. Twelve patients (17%) had neurologic deficits attributable to Co-C3 injuries. Three patients had false-negative CT scans of Co-C3, and one patient was quadriplegic. There were 32 patients with false-negative plain films, including four patients with motor deficits (one with quadriplegia). Use of the guidelines developed by the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma identified all patients with upper cervical spine injuries; to date, no patient in the study group was readmitted or has initiated a lawsuit for missed injury of the upper cervical spine.ConclusionCT scan of Co-C3 was superior to plain films in the early identification of upper cervical spine injury. Plain films failed to identify 45% of upper cervical spine injuries; four of these missed injuries resulted in motor deficits. Our study supports the practice guidelines developed by the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma for clearance of the upper cervical spine in patients with altered mental status, as all patients with injuries were identified using these guidelines.

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