NEW YORK – CT scans identify all clinically significant cervical spine injuries in intoxicated patients with blunt trauma, according to a new study.
“I don’t think any of the results were particularly surprising to any of us who regularly do trauma care, but what I do think is remarkable about them is that they dispel several long-held myths about the c-spine, intoxicated patients, and the clearance process,” Dr. Matthew J. Martin from Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, Portland, Oregon told Reuters Health.
“I think it again confirms that modern CT scan is highly reliable for identifying significant c-spine injuries, but also that the majority of so called ‘intoxicated’ patients are examinable enough to determine whether the collar can be removed (when combined with the CT scan),” he said.
Up to half of trauma patients are intoxicated, making clearance of the cervical spine a commonly encountered dilemma with both medical and medicolegal implications. Most guidelines indicate that the cervical spine should not be cleared in such patients, resulting in prolonged immobilization or additional imaging even in the face of a normal CT scan.
Dr. Martin’s team examined cervical spine clearance practices for intoxicated trauma patients, examined the reliability of cervical spine CT scans for identifying clinically significant injuries (CSIs), and looked for CSIs that might have been missed by CT scans.
Among 1,429 patients who had an alcohol or drug screen performed, 44.2% were intoxicated, the researchers report in JAMA Surgery, online June 15.
Cervical spine injuries were identified in 11.3% of the sober group, 8.1% of the alcohol-intoxicated group, and 12.0% of the drug-intoxicated group.
CT scans yielded negative predictive values of 99.2% for all injuries and 99.8% for unstable injuries. There were five false-negative CT scans, including four central cord syndromes without associated fractures and one potentially unstable injury in a drug-intoxicated patient who presented with clear quadriplegia on examination.
Half of the intoxicated patients were admitted with continued cervical spine immobilization only on the basis of their intoxication. There were no missed CSIs in this group, and all patients were discharged without evidence of an injury or neurologic deficit. They underwent cervical spine immobilization for an average of 15.1 hours, about four times the average time to cervical spine clearance among sober patients (3.7 hours).
“The finding of how long we are keeping these patients in a c-collar based solely on intoxication should raise some eyebrows, and identifies an easy target for process improvement,” Dr. Martin said.
“Cervical collars and immobilization are not therapeutic for the vast majority of c-spine injuries; they are really only to prevent inadvertent motion of an unstable c-spine injury,” Dr. Martin said. “This is exceedingly rare in a patient who presents with no gross motor deficit, and a high quality CT scan will identify these unstable injuries very reliably. In addition, there are multiple adverse effects of prolonged immobilization, and even of getting an MRI.”
“When these are factored in, I think the risk:benefit analysis falls squarely on the side of early clearance based on CT scan,” he concluded.
“A key point is that this should be done by experts who are familiar with not only the global concept (the collar can be removed with a negative CT scan), but also the finer points where you could potentially cause harm, or where you should not remove the collar,” Dr. Martin added. “This is where a very clear written protocol comes into play and reduces variation or errors that could cause patient harm.”
“The results of this study suggest that it is unnecessary to delay cervical spine clearance until intoxicated patients are sober or until magnetic resonance imaging is performed,” write Dr. Olubode A. Olufajo and Dr. Ali Salim from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in a related editorial. “However, caution must be taken in making conclusions based on these data.”
“Although the authors conducted the study at an institution with high-quality CT technology and well-trained radiologists, they still recorded a false-negative CT report consistent with a misread,” they note. “With the higher potential for this nature of error in lower-resourced settings, it becomes important to compare the costs and benefits of early removal of cervical collars.”