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Cervical spine injuries in children: a review of 103 patients treated consecutively at a level 1 pediatric trauma center.

PURPOSE: Cervical spine (C-spine) injuries occur infrequently in children but may be associated with significant disability and mortality. The purpose of this study was to review the experience of a level 1 pediatric trauma center to determine the epidemiology, risk factors, mechanisms, levels, types of injury, comorbid factors, and outcomes associated with these potentially devastating injuries.

METHODS: A retrospective analysis of 103 consecutive C-spine injuries treated at a level 1 pediatric trauma center over a 9(1/2)-year period (January 1991 through August 2000) was performed.

RESULTS: The mean age was 10.3 +/- 5.2 years, and the male-to-female ratio was 1.6:1. The most common mechanism of injury was motor vehicle related (52%), followed by sporting injuries (27%). Football injuries accounted for 29% of all sports-related injuries. Sixty-eight percent of all children sustained injuries to C1 to C4; 25% to C5 to C7; and 7% to both. Spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality (SCIWORA) occurred in 38%. Five patients had complete cord lesions involving the lower C-spine (C4 to C7); 4 of these were motor vehicle related, and all 4 patients died. Isolated C-spine injuries occurred in 43%, whereas 38% had associated closed head injuries (CHI). The overall mortality rate was 18.5%, most commonly motor vehicle related (95%), occurring in younger children (mean and median age 5 years) and associated with upper C-spine injuries (74%) and CHI (89%). C1 dislocations occurred in younger children (mean age, 6.6 years), most often as a result of motor vehicle-related trauma (especially pedestrians) and were associated with the highest injury severity score (ISS), longest length of stay (LOS), most CHIs, and the highest mortality rate (50%). C-spine fractures with or without SCI occurred most commonly as a result of falls and dives. Sporting injuries occurred almost exclusively in adolescent boys (mean age, 13.8 years) and were isolated injuries associated with a relatively low ISS and shorter LOS. Interestingly, 75% of sporting injuries showed SCIWORA, and all infants suffering from child abuse had SCIWORA.

CONCLUSIONS: Mechanisms of injury are age related, with younger children sustaining C-spine injuries as a result of motor vehicle-related trauma and older adolescents commonly injured during sporting activities. C-spine injuries in children most commonly involve the upper C-spine, but complete lesions of the cord are associated more frequently with lower C-spine injuries. The type of C-spine injury is related to the mechanism of injury: SCIWORA is associated with sporting activities and child abuse, C-spine dislocations most commonly result from motor vehicle-related trauma (especially among pedestrians), and C-spine fractures occur most commonly as a result of falls and dives. Predictors of mortality include younger age, motor vehicle-related mechanism, C1 dislocations, high ISS greater than 25, and associated CHI. A high index of suspicion for SCIWORA is essential when evaluating adolescents with neck trauma associated with sporting injuries or victims of child abuse.

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