CT cervical spine in obtunded trauma patients

Prolonged collar use and spinal immobilisation in ICU patients can contribute to pressure sores, increased intracranial pressure, venous obstruction, difficulties with airway management, difficulties with central venous access, respiratory complications, and DVT, so a reliable investigation to rule out unstable cervical spine injury is required. Several studies demonstrate the high sensitivity of CT, and now a prospective study from Canada attempts to lend further support to this.

Comparing against their chosen gold standard of dynamic radiography, ie. flexion/extension views (F/E) in 402 patients who received both tests, there was one case of injury detected by F/E but not by CT, leading to quoted sensitivity of 99.75%. However this negative CT turned out to be a reporting error – the scan, which the authors include in their article, was clearly abnormal.

One weakness of this study is that they excluded patients who died on ICU. More worrying are the stats quoted. The authors stat ‘four hundred one patients (99.75%) had normal CT and F-E images facilitating clinical clearance of their C-spine and discontinuation of spinal precautions‘. So in other words, there was only one patient in their series of 402 with an injury (according to the gold standard), and this was missed. The sensitivity is therefore zero percent, not 99.75%. What seems to be a further error is the reporting in a table of 401 patients who had ‘Positive CT and Negative F-E’, which if true, would give a specificty of zero too!

This paper covers an important topic for intensivists but it seems to me to be too flawed to add meaningfully to the existing evidence that necks can be ‘cleared’ by CT in patients without signs of cervical spine injury, in whom it has been said that the risks of prolonged collar use and immobilisation may outweigh the risks of missed cervical injury.

Cervical spine clearance in obtunded blunt trauma patients: a prospective study
J Trauma. 2010 Mar;68(3):576-82