JOURNAL ARTICLE
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Stability of cervical spine fractures after gunshot wounds to the head and neck.

Spine 2005 October 16
STUDY DESIGN: Retrospective chart review.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the frequency of stable and unstable cervical spine fractures after gunshot wounds to the head or neck; to identify potential risk factor(s) for an unstable versus stable cervical spine fracture.

SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA: Cervical spine fractures after gunshot wounds to the head and neck are common. Because of the nature of their injuries, patients often present with concomitant airway obstruction and large blood vessel injury that can necessitate emergent procedures. In some cases, acute treatment of these problems can be hindered by the presence of a cervical collar or strict adherence to spinal precautions (i.e., patient laying supine). In such situations, information regarding the probability of a stable versus unstable cervical spine fracture would be useful in emergency treatment decision making.

METHODS: A search for patients with gunshot wounds to the head or neck potentially involving the cervical spine over a 13-year period was performed using a trauma registry. Individuals with cervical spine fractures were identified and their records reviewed in detail. Data collected included information about neurologic deficits, mental status, airway treatment, entrance wounds, fracture level/type, initial/definitive fracture treatment, and final disposition at hospital discharge.

RESULTS: A total of 81 patients were identified; 19 had cervical spine fractures. There were 5 patients who were not examinable because of altered mental status (severe head trauma, hemorrhagic shock, or intoxication). All 5 patients had stable cervical spine fractures. There were 11 patients who had an acute spinal cord injury, 3 (30%) of whom underwent surgery for an unstable fracture. Of the 65 awake, alert patients without a neurologic deficit, only 3 (5%) had a fracture, none of which were unstable.

CONCLUSIONS: Gunshot wounds to the head and neck had a high rate of concomitant cervical spine fracture. Neurologically intact patients have a lower rate of fracture than those presenting with a spinal cord injury or altered mental status. In this small series of patients, the only unstable cervical spine injuries were detected in patients with a spinal cord injury. The data suggest that spinal precautions and/or a hard cervical collar should not be maintained at the expense of delaying or hindering emergent life-saving airway or hemodynamically stabilizing procedures, particularly in awake, neurologically intact patients. However, the cervical collar and spinal precautions should be resumed after such procedures are completed and continued until a more definitive evaluation of spinal stability can be performed.

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