Cervical spine fracture patterns mandating screening to rule out blunt cerebrovascular injury

C Clay Cothren, Ernest E Moore, Charles E Ray, Jeffrey L Johnson, John B Moore, Jon M Burch
Surgery 2007, 141 (1): 76-82

BACKGROUND: Aggressive screening for blunt cerebrovascular injury (BCVI) and prompt anticoagulation for documented injuries has resulted in a significant reduction in ischemic neurologic events. An association between vertebral artery injuries (VAIs) and specific cervical spine fracture patterns has been suggested; however, current screening guidelines would subject all patients with cervical spine fractures to imaging because no distinction has been made for carotid artery injuries (CAIs). We hypothesized that specific cervical spine fracture patterns that warrant screening evaluation exist, hence limiting unwarranted diagnostic imaging.

METHODS: Patients undergoing screening for BCVI on the basis of injury patterns and mechanism have been prospectively followed at our regional trauma center since January 1996.

RESULTS: During the study period from January 1996 to January 2005, there were 17,007 blunt trauma admissions. Twenty-three patients presented with symptoms of BCVI. Screening angiography was performed in 766 patients (4.5%), and diagnosed 258 (34%) patients with BCVI. One hundred twenty-five patients with BCVI had cervical spine fractures; 18 patients had isolated CAI; 84 had isolated VAI, and 23 had combined CAI and VAI. Eight patients with VAI had minor cervical fractures but underwent screening for other injury patterns. Fractures in the remaining patients with BCVI were 1 of 3 patterns. Subluxations in 56 (48%) patients, C1 to C3 cervical spine fractures in 42 (36%), or extension of the fracture through the foramen transversarium in 19 (16%). Cervical spine fractures were the sole indication for screening in 90% of the study population. Screening yield of all patients admitted with 1 of these 3 fracture patterns was 37%.

CONCLUSIONS: Blunt cerebrovascular injury is associated with complex cervical spine fractures that include subluxation, extension into the foramen transversarium, or upper C1 to C3 fractures. Patients sustaining such cervical fractures should undergo prompt screening.

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