Cervical spine guideline

The UK College of Emergency Medicine has produced guidelines on the management of cervical spine injury in the ED

Since I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about the obsession with cervical immobilisation, I’m reproducing here an excerpt from the guideline regarding this topic:

In 1998, Hauswald published retrospective data that compared the neurological outcomes of 334 patients with blunt traumatic cervical spinal injury who all had spinal immobilisation performed (New Mexico) with 120 patients with blunt traumatic cervical spinal injury that had no spinal immobilisation performed (Malaya). There was a non-significant increase in neurological disability in the immobilised group. Though this comparison is flawed, the author’s argument that any cord injury from blunt trauma occurs at the time of the impact, that subsequent movement is very unlikely to cause further damage, and that alert patient will develop a position of comfort with muscle spasm protecting the spine appears credible. It is widely accepted that it may be harmful for patients with pre-existing vertebral anatomical abnormalities eg ankylosing spondylitis to have their neck forced into an unnatural position and such patients usually have their neck supported in a position of comfort with or without a collar.

A Cochrane review updated in 2009 by Kwan et al concluded that in the absence of any randomised controlled trials the low incidence of unstable injuries of the cervical spine amongst those immobilised raised the possibility that immobilisation may be associated with a higher morbidity and mortality than non-immobilisation. In a recent literature review, Benger and Blackman concluded that alert, co-operative trauma patients do not require cervical spine immobilisation unless their conscious level deteriorates or they find short-term support of a collar helpful.

The evidence both for and against cervical spine immobilisation is weak. Although Hauswald’s study is intriguing, if we accept a 1-2% prevalence of unstable cervical spine injury following blunt trauma and hypothesise that 1 in 10 patients with unstable cervical spinal injuries would suffer a spinal cord injury as a consequence of non-immobilisation of their neck then only 1 in 500 -1,000 patients would be harmed as a result, which exceeds Hauswald’s study population. There is a need for large randomised multi-centre trials to determine the risk:benefit ratio of neck immobilisation. However, the current practice of cervical spine immobilisation has been so widely adopted and the consequence of causing or exacerbating a spinal injury so catastrophic that such trials may not be supported by ethical committees….Though evidence that the use of cervical collars prevents secondary injury is lacking, no evidence could be found to contradict this statement and it is, therefore, supported.

The guideline does not specify what exactly they mean by cervical spine immobilisation. Clinical practice ranges from one-piece hard or semi-rigid collars (eg. Stifneck) to more comfortable two-piece collars (eg. Philadelphia), tape and sandbags alone, or ‘triple immobilisation’ (collar, sandbags and tape). It is perhaps the obsessive adherence to the latter in the absence of a single piece of supportive evidence that I find bewildering.

Fortunately most Australian practice I’ve witnessed settles on a collar or manual immobilisation, with early application of a two-piece collar in those patients who require prolonged immobilisation.

The College guideline provides a helpful and pragmatic summary of the evidence to date and a digestible list of recommendations that could guide both departmental practice and postgraduat exam revision.

Guideline on the management of alert, adult patients with potential cervical spine injury in the Emergency Department
College of Emergency Medicine 2010 (PDF)

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