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Airway compromise secondary to upper cervical spine injury.

Journal of Trauma 2009 October
BACKGROUND: Airway compromise secondary to isolated injury at the atlas (C1) and axis (C2) without an associated spinal cord injury is a rare, but recognized phenomenon that results in significant morbidity and mortality. No previous study in the literature has reported the incidence of this potentially lethal complication of these relatively common fractures.

METHODS: The medical records for 625 consecutive patients who presented to a Level I trauma center with C1 and C2 fractures during the years from 1996 to 2005 were reviewed retrospectively. Strict inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied to identify adult patients with isolated fractures and no other injuries. All patients that developed significant airway compromise were identified and correlations were made with the patient's demographic features, clinical presentation, and radiologic findings, to determine potential risk factors.

RESULTS: During the 10 years studied, 343 patients with isolated C1 and C2 fractures were identified. Of these, 17 patients developed significant airway compromise. This represents a 4.9% incidence of this potentially life-threatening complication. Older age and male gender were found to be risk factors with a statistically significant association (p value <0.05). The majority of patients also exhibited prevertebral swelling, the presence of significant degenerative changes, and significant fracture displacement. Twelve patients required intubation and admission to Intensive Care Unit (ICU). There were four deaths.

CONCLUSIONS: Approximately 5% of patients with isolated C1 and C2 fractures developed airway compromise. All patients with these injuries should be assessed for the risk of developing this complication and some will require close monitoring to detect this problem at an early stage.

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