Radiology Trauma

Cervical Spine Injuries

Cervical Spine Injuries are fortunately rare in children. this episode is all about learning when to suspect them, how to immobilize the C-spine properly, and which imaging test to choose. It was inspired by a hot-off-the-presses publication from the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) focused on clinical decision rules for cervical spine imaging in children.

Check out the paper by Leonard et al. entitled “PECARN prediction rule for cervical spine imaging of children presenting to the emergency department with blunt trauma: a multicentre prospective observational study” at Lancet Child & Adolescent Health from Leonard et al here!

Maybe there’s a funky music video that will teach you how to clear the C-spine?


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Leonard, J. C., Harding, M., Cook, L. J., Leonard, J. R., Adelgais, K. M., Ahmad, F. A., Browne, L. R., Burger, R. K., Chaudhari, P., Corwin, D. J., Glomb, N. W., Lee, L. K., Owusu-Ansah, S., Riney, L. C., Rogers, A. J., Rubalcava, D. M., Sapien, R. E., Szadkowski, M. A., Tzimenatos, L., Ward, C. E., Yen, K., Kuppermann, N. (2024). PECARN prediction rule for cervical spine imaging of children presenting to the emergency department with blunt trauma: a multicentre prospective observational study. Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Sasser SM, Hunt RC, Faul M, Sugerman D, Pearson WS, Dulski T, Wald MM, Jurkovich GJ, Newgard CD, Lerner EB; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Guidelines for field triage of injured patients: recommendations of the National Expert Panel on Field Triage, 2011. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2012 Jan 13;61(RR-1):1-20. PMID: 22237112.

Leonard JR, Jaffe DM, Kuppermann N, Olsen CS, Leonard JC; Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) Cervical Spine Study Group. Cervical spine injury patterns in children. Pediatrics. 2014 May;133(5):e1179-88. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3505. PMID: 24777222; PMCID: PMC9923608.

Baker C, Kadish H, Schunk JE. Evaluation of pediatric cervical spine injuries. Am J Emerg Med. 1999 May;17(3):230-4. doi: 10.1016/s0735-6757(99)90111-0. PMID: 10337876.

Leonard JC, Browne LR, Ahmad FA, Schwartz H, Wallendorf M, Leonard JR, Lerner EB, Kuppermann N. Cervical Spine Injury Risk Factors in Children With Blunt Trauma. Pediatrics. 2019 Jul;144(1):e20183221. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-3221. PMID: 31221898; PMCID: PMC6615532.

Leonard JC, Jaffe DM, Olsen CS, Kuppermann N. Age-related differences in factors associated with cervical spine injuries in children. Acad Emerg Med. 2015 Apr;22(4):441-6. doi: 10.1111/acem.12637. Epub 2015 Mar 16. PMID: 25779934.

Leonard JC, Kuppermann N, Olsen C, Babcock-Cimpello L, Brown K, Mahajan P, Adelgais KM, Anders J, Borgialli D, Donoghue A, Hoyle JD Jr, Kim E, Leonard JR, Lillis KA, Nigrovic LE, Powell EC, Rebella G, Reeves SD, Rogers AJ, Stankovic C, Teshome G, Jaffe DM; Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network. Factors associated with cervical spine injury in children after blunt trauma. Ann Emerg Med. 2011 Aug;58(2):145-55. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2010.08.038. Epub 2010 Oct 29. PMID: 21035905.


Note: This transcript was partially completed with the use of the Descript AI

Welcome to PEM Currents, the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Podcast. As always, I’m your host Brad Sobolewski, and this episode is all about cervical spine injuries in children. Now, fortunately, cervical spine injuries in kids are rare. They only happen in about 1- 2 percent of pediatric blunt trauma injuries.

But, In children with cervical spine injuries, at least one in five have permanent neurologic deficits, and serious cervical spine injuries, there’s a 7 percent mortality rate. So severe mechanisms are the scenarios where you are most likely to see a C spine injury in kids. So these are motor vehicle collisions with a patient ejected from the car, motor vehicle collision with death of another occupant, and Intrusion into the patient’s passenger compartment of greater than 12 inches at the roof and or greater than 18 inches at any site. So you got to ask the prehospital personnel about the injury and the crash scene fall of a distance greater than 10 feet or two to three times the child’s height diving into a body of water and an axial load. So force applied to the top of the head and acceleration deceleration Injury of the head.

So you hit your head on a dashboard during a head on collision. A clotheslining force. So that’s caused by a rope, a cable, or another object exerting traction on or striking the neck while the body is in forward motion. And certain sports do have a higher association with cervical spine injuries like football, hockey, wrestling, bicycling, trampoline use or riding ATVs. Infants can get a cervical spine injury during breech delivery or, unfortunately, during non accidental trauma as well. Axial injuries, occiput to C2, are much more commonly seen in children under the age of eight – it’s three quarters of all cervical spine injuries. These are most often due to motor vehicle collisions and falls.

Kids this age are more susceptible because of their big lollipop heads. You know, they have a giant head size related to their body size and they have loose joints and ligaments overall. Their C spine fulcrum is higher at birth, it’s at C2 to C3, as opposed to C5 to C6, which is the usual position in older children and adolescents just through the process of normal growth.

The most common injuries seen in these younger patients are growth plate fractures and ligamentous injuries. It’s particularly difficult to diagnose cervical spine injuries in kids under three because they can’t give you an accurate history and cooperate with the exam. Older children, so older than eight, so middle schoolers and up, have a higher likelihood of injuries in the C3 to C7 range.

This makes up about half of the injuries. And these happen during motor vehicle collisions and sports. You more often will see vertebral body and arch fractures as opposed to the growth plate fractures and ligamentous injuries in the younger children. And overall, C spine injury can occur through a lot of different mechanisms including flexion, extension, vertical compression, rotation, or combination of all of the above.

And though we’re talking about injuries to the vertebra, the cervical spine, spinal cord injuries themselves happen either due to direct compression, or disruption of the cord itself by a fracture, fragment, or a sublux vertebra. Let’s go ahead and pivot to initial management. And we need to suspect cervical spine injuries in any patient with multisystem blunt force trauma.

You want to limit spine motion during your primary survey, the ABCs, or the rapid cardiopulmonary assessment. Someone can hold c spine, and we’ll talk about more about maintaining and clearing the c spine in a little bit. You’ll do jaw thrust alone as an airway maneuver. No head tilt. Orotracheal intubation with video laryngoscopy is ideal.

C spine injuries themselves can impact airway maintenance and or patency. So if you have an unstable injury above C3, you can actually have respiratory paralysis. A lower cervical injury could impact the phrenic nerve. The cervical spinal column injury itself may be associated with airway obstruction from retropharyngeal hemorrhage, edema, or maxillofacial trauma.

You should also consider the possibility of quote unquote spinal shock. This is due to the loss of sympathetic output and vasodilatation. So you could worry about this in a bradycardic and hypotensive patient, but in multisystem trauma hypotension is more likely hemorrhage. than it is spinal shock.

Resuscitate with volume and blood. When evaluating the cervical spine in particular, if you can get details on the mechanism, that’s fantastic. You’ve got some specific injury patterns that you should be on the lookout for. So a patient that has hyperflexion can have a vertebral body wedge fracture and disruption of the posterior elements.

A hyperextension Extension injury will compress the posterior elements and disrupt the anterior longitudinal ligament. This is the hangman’s fracture, the posterior neural arch of C1 or the pedicles of C2. Axial load can cause burst fracture, so someone that dives into a pool. A rotational injury will disrupt the facets.

This is more common in combination with an extension or flexion injury, not just rotation alone. And then there’s the specific Atlanto Axial Rotary Subluxation Pattern. It’s often minor trauma in younger children, where C1 and C2 essentially get stuck on each other in a rotary position, and the kid can’t turn their neck.

Children will have some localized cervical pain, muscle spasm, decreased neck range of motion. They may or may not have neurological symptoms, even if they’ve resolved. These can include paresthesias, numbness, or weakness. The distribution of these neurologic symptoms is really variable, and it can range from involvement of single dermatomes to dramatic neurologic deficits including quadriplegia.

The ability to walk does not completely exclude a C spine injury. And interestingly, even children with no symptoms can have a cervical spine injury. There is a retrospective review of children just before the turn of the millennium that found that even 10 percent of that population with cervical spine injury were initially asymptomatic.

Finally, there are some children that you need to be aware are more predisposed to cervical spine injury than others. And this includes children with Down syndrome, clipple feel, osteogenesis imperfecta, marfans, Ehlers Danlos, chronic steroid use, rickets, and more. When it comes to physical examination of a child with a suspected cervical spine injury, remember, immobilize the c spine, either by hand, so another team member holding inline c spine, or by placing a collar, like an Aspen or Miami.

The ABCs are, as always, incredibly important. An axial injury, occiput to C2, causes abrupt cessation of respiration, so that patient will be apneic. A patient who is hypoventilating may have injuries of the spinal cord at the level of diaphragmatic control, so C3, C4, C5. And hypotension, bradycardia, or temperature instability can result from hemorrhagic and or spinal shock.

When examining the neck, you want to maintain in line stabilization. You have to palpate, but don’t press too hard on the spinous processes for local tenderness, muscle spasm, or obvious deformity. Either start at C7 and work your way up, or find C1 and work your way down. Be deliberate about touching each cervical vertebrae.

Tell younger children to use their words. Yes if it hurts, no if it doesn’t. Don’t shake their head. They always do this. A child with midline cervical tenderness. is more likely to have a cervical spine injury than a child with paraspinous muscular tenderness or spasm. Infants and toddlers who can’t cooperate can actually be cleared without imaging after minor trauma if they have a normal neurologic examination that includes mental status and GCS 15 and no other life threatening injuries.

It’s really hard to know if an 18 month old has C spine pain or not. In my experience, doing a neurologic exam is really difficult in the resuscitation area, especially when a patient is supine and has an immobilized c spine. The overall Glasgow Coma Scale and evaluation of tone, strength, sensation, and reflexes constitutes a complete neurologic exam.

50 percent of all children with cervical spine injuries will have some sort of neurological deficit. And yes, doing a neuro exam is hard, and it takes practice. Part of that is learning ways to get patients to participate when they are uncomfortable or scared. And subtle findings are fortunately most common, but harder to elicit.

An isolated sensory deficit is the most common neurological finding in cervical spine injury. Ipsilateral posterior spinal column and contralateral anterior column are tested via light touch. The anterolateral spinal column is tested with pinprick or pain. The ipsilateral posterior spinal column is tested with position sense, so moving that toe, and dysesthesia will localize to the central cord.

And this is a podcast, so I can’t make you conjure up a table in your head, but I think it is important to remember where some deficits will come from if you have injuries at particular levels. And so if you have an injury at C2 to C3, you may just see apnea. C3 and C4 control the diaphragm, so you want to make sure the patient is spontaneously breathing.

C5 is flexion of the biceps. with the palm up, or supinated. C6 is extension of the wrist. C7 is extension of the elbow. L2 through L4 are extension of the knee. L5 is dorsiflexion of the great toe. And S3 and 4 is rectal tone. So absence of rectal tone is a poor prognostic sign, but it’s also not sensitive for cervical spine injury.

In a child with a GCS of 15 with no active neurological complaints, I would argue that a digital rectal exam is pretty invasive, and just squeezing the buttocks together is probably a good proxy. A child with altered mental status, or decreased responsiveness, or high index of suspicion for cervical spine injury should get a digital rectal examination.

And yes, on board exams! You have these spinal cord injury syndromes. They show up again and again and again. I’ve actually rarely seen them in pediatric practice, fortunately. But for completeness, here they are. Anterior cord syndromes are from hyperflexion, and you’ll see paralysis and loss of pain sensation without loss of light touch or proprioception.

Central cord syndromes are from hyperextension, and you’ll see weakness that is greater in the upper as opposed to the lower extremities, and transient burning sensation of the hands and fingers. Brown Sequard syndrome, which is cord hemisection, will lead to ipsilateral paralysis, loss of proprioception, and loss of light touch, and a contralateral loss of pain and temperature sensation.

And then Horner syndrome is disruption of the sympathetic chain. So you’ll see ipsilateral ptosis, meiosis, and anhydrosis. Okay, so let’s say the ABCs are normal, GCS is 15, and there are no focal neurologic findings. How do we attempt to clear the C spine? So for this, you’re gonna need another team member.

So have the patient lie supine. Have your assistant hold inline C-spine mobilization. They’re gonna be standing above the patient’s head, and then you’ll remove the anterior front portion of the collar. Reach behind their neck, inside the back portion of the collar, and feel very intentionally. See one all the way down to C seven.

Or the reverse, C7 all the way up to C1, asking the patient at each one if there is pain. And again, tell them to use their words, yes or no, and not nod or shake their head. And they’ll still mess this up. At each cervical vertebrae, feel for any swelling or step off. So one that feels kind of more in than the rest.

If there is pain at any cervical vertebrae, replace the collar. And then you’ll move on to imaging, which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. If there is absolutely no pain in C1 through C7, You can have your teammate release inline c spinal mobilization and then ask the patient to actively flex, extend, and rotate to the left and right, all at 45 degrees.

If they have no pain in the midline with any of these movements, then the cervical spine is clinically cleared. But if they have pain or decreased range of motion in any direction, replace the collar and move on to imaging. No matter where you work, you should apply clinical decision rules with an imaging algorithm for anybody with suspected cervical spine injuries.

Now in grown ups, you’re probably familiar with the Canadian C spine rule. It’s a highly sensitive rule that is designed to prevent missing cervical spine injuries while limiting the amount of unnecessary radiologic examinations. This Canadian C spine rule does not apply to children under 16 years of age.

In many settings in adults, plain radiographs have actually been abandoned in favor of CT scans. And a negative CT scan, if you rule in via the Canadian C spine rule, is generally sufficient to clear the majority of C spine injuries and allows for collar removal. In children, though, we prioritize limiting radiation risk.

And so it’s recommended, based on recent evidence from the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network, PCARD, that we have a three tiered decision rule. So the highest risk patients, these patients have a risk of cervical spine injury of about 12%, are going to recommend immediate medical attention.

CAT scan. These patients will have altered mental status, A GCS of three to eight or unresponsive on the AVPU alert, voice pain, unresponsive, mnemonic. Highest risk patients also include those with any abnormality of the airway, breathing, or circulation. and somebody with a focal neurological deficit. And then there’s an intermediate risk group that has a just under 4%, specifically a 3.

6 percent chance of a cervical spine injury. And these are patients that it is recommended to get a plain x ray. These are patients with posterior neck pain, altered mental status, but a GCS of greater than eight. Or patients with a substantial head or torso injury and substantial means that they’re going to require an intervention or observation in the hospital.

And then there’s a low risk group with a risk of cervical spine injuries of 0. 2 percent or less. And these patients generally don’t need any imaging. And so this is, uh, Assuring through meticulous investigation that none of the following risk factors are present. So neck pain or midline posterior neck tenderness, decreased range of motion or pain with range of motion on flexion, extension, or rotation to the left and right, torticollis, altered mental status so a GCS of 14 or less, any focal neurologic finding and remember sensory deficits are the most common in cervical spine injuries, Any substantial coexisting injuries, so especially torso injuries or child abuse injuries.

Any relevant predisposing condition like Down syndrome. And high risk mechanisms. Diving, hanging, an axial load force, a clothes lining force, or a motor vehicle collision with significant intrusion, ejection from the vehicle, or a death in the vehicle. So again, if the child is negative for all of those, you don’t have to place a collar.

And you don’t need any imaging, and that includes an x ray or a CT scan. The goal of using this high intermediate, low tiered approach is to cut the rate of CAT scans in children by greater than 50%. And so the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network is actively working on that, initially in an ED setting, with future work in the pre hospital setting.

And so hopefully that helps you understand when to get imaging. But what about the actual imaging choices themselves? Plain x rays are the initial choice in children with normal mental status, but cervical spine tenderness. They’ve got adequate sensitivity to exclude unstable c spine injuries. There are two view x ray series of the neck, that’s an AP and a lateral, or a three view series, cross table lateral, AP, and when obtainable, then open mouthed odontoid.

Multiple views, as you’d expect, are more sensitive, like 90%, as opposed to a single view, which is only 79%. Some children are chunky, and it’s hard to see all seven cervical vertebrae, but you do need to see that for a complete set of film. Some of you might work at a place where they get the swimmer’s view, where they grab both patients hands or wrists, and then pull down to try to get the shoulders out of the way to show C7.

If you have a high suspicion for cervical spine injury, don’t do this. Flexion extension views have fallen out of favor in my practice environment because CT is readily available. The FlexX views are still used in some situations, and they could show some ligamentous disruption. This is where the patient actively flexes and extends with X rays taken.

Never do passive flexion of a suspected C spine injury. CT or CAT scans, by default, get axial images. computed axial tomography. Then the computer is going to do fancy sagittal, coronal, and 3D reconstruction, which is totally cool. CT scans are indicated in any child with altered mental status, a GCS of 3 to 8, or unresponsive on the AFPU.

Also, in children with an abnormal airway breathing and or circulation. and orifocal neurologic deficit. The risk of radiation is the primary concern here, and radiology departments should follow the ALERA, or as low as reasonably acceptable, principle. A C spine CT delivers substantially more radiation to the skin, thyroid, and spinal cord, up to 10 50 percent more.

Children younger than 5 years of age are more prone to radiation induced malignancies due to the increased radio sensitivity of certain organs and a longer latency or life period to develop a cancer. Calculating the lifetime risk of getting cancer from CT scans is hard to do, which is great because we’re not just like scanning people for no reason and seeing if they get cancer later.

The best current estimate is that the estimated lifetime cancer mortality risk attributable to the radiation exposure from a CT for a one year old is approximately 0. 07 to 0. 18%. So not zero, but pretty low. The risk of radiation exposure exceeds the benefit of CT imaging in the majority of children evaluated for C spine injury.

So most of them don’t have a very low GCS, or abnormal ABCs, or focal neurologic deficits. That’s why PCARN is doing this work. Many adult centers will readily get CT scans in adults with suspected c spine injuries. These are just not necessary in the majority of children. Either nothing or plain x rays are sufficient.

And what about MRI? It’s becoming increasingly available. In anybody with an abnormal neurologic examination, or when imaging of the spinal cord or other soft tissues is paramount, MRI can be very helpful. For It is superior to CT for visualizing soft tissues and identifying intervertebral disc herniation, ligamentous injuries, and spinal cord edema, as well as hemorrhage, compression, and transection type injuries.

MRI is actually less sensitive than CT for detection of fractures of the posterior elements of the c spine and injuries to the cranial cervical junction. So it’s not perfect. Even fast protocols for MRIs are tough to get in children under the age of 6 years, they require sedation. And spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality, C.

Wura, was defined way back in 1982, and I was 4 or 5 years old when this happened. And this was objective signs of myelopathy as a result of trauma in the absence of findings on plane radiographs, flexion extension radiographs, and cervical CT. CWRA is kind of a moot point when you have an imaging modality that uses fancy magnets to jiggle water molecules and take a cool picture.

You can demonstrate injury to the spinal cord and spinal ligaments. And so in anybody with a localizable neurologic sign or symptom, I’m not saying you have to get it in the ED because that’s just not practical, but these patients will, upon admission or shortly after their initial assessment, need an MRI at some point.

And though this episode is focused on cervical spine injuries, it goes without saying that if somebody has thoracic or lumbar spine pain, they should get plain imaging of that, or if they have substantial multisystem trauma and you’re getting a CT scan of the chest or abdomen, that is obviously going to include those bones as well.

Now moving on to disposition. Any patient with a cervical spine injury or a neurologic deficit They’re getting admitted to the hospital. And this obviously includes patients who need surgery, like unstable fractures and those sort of things. That’s a spine or neurosurgery operation. Patients with stable fractures, so an isolated spinous process, or transverse process fractured, identified by CT, will have a rigid cervical collar applied, so an aspen or vista, With trauma and spine follow up within a week.

Kids wear this collar 24 7. So again, you’ve got an isolated, stable fracture, no displacement, no neurologic symptoms, no other injuries, that kid could go home and they’re going to wear that collar 24 7. You have to teach them how to take care of it. If you have a negative x ray, but persistent midline c spine pain, we also recommend keeping the kid in the cervical collar and follow up at a trauma or spine center within a week.

Could you get a CT scan in those situations? Yes, but still most pediatric trauma centers will void the ionizing radiation of the CT scan and keep the patient in the collar until trauma follow up. Okay, so let’s wrap up this episode. Fortunately, cervical spine injuries in children are rare. You should learn how to clinically clear a C spine and know that it takes two people to do it correctly.

Practice your neurologic examination in children who are being evaluated for traumatic injuries. Know which mechanisms are more likely to cause C spine injuries. And make sure that you’re using a clinical decision rule with an imaging algorithm for kids with suspected C spine injuries. Highest risk patients should get CT scans.

They have a 1 in 8 chance of a c spine injury, altered mental status, GCS 3 to 8, unresponsive, abnormal ABCs or focal neurologic deficit. Patients that are intermediate risk have a less than 1 in 25 chance of a c spine injury and that’s when we would get a plain x ray. So they have Posterior midline neck pain, altered mental status, but a GCS of greater than 8, or some substantial comorbid head or thoracic injury that requires management or admission to the hospital.

Patients with no findings will have a less than 0. 2 to 0. 3 percent chance of a cervical spine injury and don’t need any imaging at all. So this is a patient with no midline neck pain, no pain on neck range of motion, Normal mental status, normal neurologic exam, no comorbidities, and no high risk mechanisms.

I encourage you all to take a look at the new publication from the PCAR Network in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. I’ve provided a link in the show notes. This is the state of the art paper on the use of decision rules for cervical spine imaging in children. To learn more about the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network, or PCARN, check out PCARN.

org. You can also follow them on x at pkarn team. If you’ve got feedback on this episode, send it my way. Email, direct message on x, a comment on the blog, I’d love to hear it. Hopefully you found this information useful and you can take it back to your next shift. Overall, that’s the goal of this podcast.

Encourage your colleagues to listen and subscribe. Hopefully they will find it helpful as well. And please let me know if there are any topics specifically related to trauma and injuries in children that you think that I should cover. For PEMCurrents, the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Podcast, this has been Brad Sobolewski.

See you next time.

By bradsobo

Brad Sobolewski, MD, MEd is a Professor of Pediatric Emergency Medicine and an Associate Director for the Pediatric Residency Training Program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He is on Twitter @PEMTweets and authors the Pediatric Emergency Medicine site PEMBlog and produces and hosts the PEM Currents: The Pediatric Emergency Medicine Podcast.

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