Blunt carotid artery injury: the futility of aggressive screening and diagnosis

John C Mayberry, Carlos V Brown, Richard J Mullins, George C Velmahos
Archives of Surgery 2004, 139 (6): 609-12; discussion 612-3

BACKGROUND: Blunt carotid artery injury (BCI) remains a rare but potentially lethal condition. Recent studies recommend that aggressive screening based on broad criteria (hyperextension-hyperflexion mechanism of injury, basilar skull fracture, cervical spine injury, midface fracture, mandibular fracture, diffuse axonal brain injury, and neck seat-belt sign) increases the rate of diagnosis of BCI by 9-fold. If this recommendation becomes a standard of care, it will require a major consumption of resources and may give rise to liability claims. The benefits of aggressive screening are unclear because the natural history of asymptomatic BCI is unknown and the existing treatments are controversial.

HYPOTHESIS: The lack of an aggressive angiographic screening protocol does not result in delayed BCI diagnosis or BCI-related neurologic deficits.

METHODS: A 10-year medical record review of patients with BCI was undertaken in 2 level I academic trauma centers. In both centers, urgent screening for BCI was performed in patients with focal neurologic signs or neurologic symptoms unexplainable by results of computed tomography of the brain as well as in selected patients undergoing angiography for another reason.

RESULTS: Of 35 212 blunt trauma admissions, 17 patients (0.05%) were diagnosed as having BCI. Six showed no evidence of BCI-related neurologic symptoms during hospitalization or prior to death as a result of associated injuries. Eleven sustained a BCI-related stroke, 9 of whom had it within 2 hours of injury. The remaining 2 had a delayed diagnosis (9 and 12 hours after injury) and received only anticoagulation because the lesions were surgically inaccessible. Just 1 of these 2 patients met the criteria for BCI screening and could have been offered earlier treatment, of uncertain benefit, if we had adopted an aggressive screening policy.

CONCLUSIONS: Of the few patients with BCI, most remain asymptomatic or develop neurologic deficits shortly after injury. Although a widely applied, resource-consuming screening program may increase the rate of early diagnosis of BCI, an improvement in outcome is uncertain. A cost-effectiveness analysis should be done before trauma surgeons accept an aggressive screening protocol as the standard of care.

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