Neck trauma is an uncommon but serious presenting complaint in the emergency department. Many vital structures may be affected in a patient with a traumatic neck injury, including the airway, digestive tract, and carotid and vertebral arteries. Emergency clinicians must also be prepared to diagnose and manage occult and delayed presentations of injury related to neck trauma. This supplement reviews advances and best practices in the evaluation and management of patients with neck trauma, with a focus on evidencebased guidelines. A streamlined algorithm is provided as well as discussion of recent changes and controversies in neck trauma management in the prehospital and emergency department settings.
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Evidence-based medicine requires a critical appraisal of the literature based upon study methodology and number of subjects. Not all references are equally robust. The findings of a large, prospective, randomized, and blinded trial should carry more weight than a case report.
To help the reader judge the strength of each reference, pertinent information about the study is included in bold type following the reference, where available. In addition, the most informative references cited in this paper, as determined by the authors, are noted by an asterisk (*) next to the number of the reference.
1. Al-Thani H, El-Menyar A, Mathew S, et al. Patterns and outcomes of traumatic neck injuries: a population-based observational study. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2015;8(3):154-158. (Retrospective analysis; 51 patients)
2. * Nowicki JL, Stew B, Ooi E. Penetrating neck injuries: a guide to evaluation and management. Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 2018;100(1):6-11. (Literature review) DOI: 10.1308/rcsann.2017.0191
3. Schaider J, Bailitz J. Neck trauma: don’t put your neck on the line. Emerg Med Pract. 2003;5(7):1-28. (Review)
4. * Irish JC, Hekkenberg R, Gullane PJ, et al. Penetrating and blunt neck trauma: 10-year review of a Canadian experience. Can J Surg. 1997;40(1):33-38. (Retrospective case series; 85 patients)
11. * Bromberg WJ, Collier BC, Diebel LN, et al. Blunt cerebrovascular injury practice management guidelines: the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma. J Trauma. 2010;68(2):471-477. (Guidelines) DOI: 10.1097/TA.0b013e3181cb43da
13. Wong K. Guideline review: EAST blunt cerebrovascular injury. Accessed April 1, 2021. (Guideline review)
14. * Larson S, Delnat AU, Moore J. The use of clinical cervical spine clearance in trauma patients: a literature review. J Emerg Nurs. 2018;44(4):368-374. (Systematic literature review) DOI: 10.1016/j.jen.2017.10.013
15. * Sundstrøm T, Asbjørnsen H, Habiba S, et al. Prehospital use of cervical collars in trauma patients: a critical review. J Neurotrauma. 2014;31(6):531-540. (Review) DOI: 10.1089/neu.2013.3094
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Keywords: neck trauma, neck injury, c-spine injury, cervical spine injury, penetrating neck trauma, blunt neck trauma, blunt cerebrovascular injury, BCVI, strangulation, hanging, near hanging, whiplash, esophageal injury, laryngotracheal injury, platysma, no zone approach, cervical spine immobilization, cervical collar, hard signs, soft signs, seatbelt sign, Canadian C-Spine Rule, NEXUS Criteria for C-Spine Imaging, CTA neck, neck hyperextension, central cord syndrome
The National Emergency X-Radiography Utilization Study (NEXUS) Criteria were developed to help clinicians determine whether or not cervical spine imaging can be safely avoided in appropriate patients.
The validation study included a prospective, observational sample of 34,069 patients, aged 1 to 101 years, presenting to 21 trauma centers in the United States. Among the patients studied, 1.7% had clinically significant cervical spine injuries (CSIs). The NEXUS criteria were found to have sensitivity of 99.6% for ruling out CSIs. The study also detected 99% of all CSIs–all but 8 of 818 patients, among whom 6 had injuries that didn’t require stabilization or specialized treatment In the study, adoption of the criteria could have decreased imaging in patients with cervical spine injuries by 12.6%. Subsequent studies have found a sensitivity of 83% to 100% for CSI, with the majority of studies finding 90% to 100% sensitivity.
Unlike the Canadian C-Spine Rule (CCR), the NEXUS Criteria do not have age cutoffs and are theoretically applicable to all patients aged >1 year. However, some literature suggests the use of caution in applying NEXUS Criteria to patients aged >65 years, as the sensitivity may be as low as 66% to 84%. In a large, retrospective trauma registry study of 231,018 patients, sensitivity was still only 94.8% (95% confidence interval, 92.1%-96.7%) (Paykin 2017).
In the only trial to undertake a prospective head-to-head comparison of the NEXUS Criteria and the CCR, the CCR was found to have superior sensitivity (99.4% vs 90.7%). However, the trial was performed by the creators of the CCR at hospitals that were involved in the initial CCR validation study (Stiell 2003). There were also post hoc clarifications added by the authors to the original NEXUS Criteria, leading to some concerns about the generalizability of the study findings. There is also debate about whether x-rays of the cervical spine are sufficiently sensitive to rule out cervical spine injuries in trauma patients, and whether computed tomography (CT) is a more appropriate imaging modality in this patient population.
Because of concerns that the NEXUS Criteria do not perform as well among patients aged >65 years, clinicians may want to consider further imaging if there is concern about the mechanism or examination in elderly patients. Although more complicated to remember, the CCR appears to perform as well or better than NEXUS in terms of sensitivity for CSI. In cases where a patient is not ruled out by the NEXUS Criteria, it may be appropriate to apply the CCR. If the patient is negative for the CCR, then further imaging is probably unnecessary; for example, patients with midline cervical spine tenderness would need imaging according to the NEXUS criteria, but potentially could be cleared by the CCR if they did not have any high-risk features and could range their necks 45 degrees to the left and right.
There is also concern that the NEXUS Criteria were derived and validated in an era when plain films were much more commonly ordered to assess for cervical spine injuries. CT imaging of the cervical spine is now more common, and there is some evidence that CT may identify CSIs that would be missed by NEXUS and/or the CCR.
Daniel Runde, MD
At 34,069, the number of patients enrolled in the original validation study for the NEXUS Criteria was over 3.5 times greater than in the original CCR study. As applied, the rule missed 2 of the 578 patients with a clinically significant CSI, yielding a sensitivity of 99.6% (Hoffman 1998). Subsequent evaluations of the NEXUS Criteria have found the sensitivity for CSI to be more variable (83%-100%), but there have been some concerns about the methodology (retrospective review) and the way the criteria were applied in several of these analyses. In a trial in which all patients underwent CT imaging of their cervical spine, the NEXUS Criteria was found to have a sensitivity of 83%, with the rule missing 2.5% of patients with fractures (26 of 1057). Sixteen (1.5%) of these patients required prolonged time in a cervical collar, 2 (0.2%) underwent operative repair, and 1 (0.1%) had a halo placed. A retrospective analysis attempting to apply the NEXUS Criteria to the validation cohort for the CCR found a sensitivity of 92.7%.
Jerome Hoffman, MD
The Canadian C-spine rule (CCR) was developed to help clinicians determine which trauma patients need cervical spine imaging. The CCR is highly sensitive for cervical spine injury, with most studies finding that it catches 99% to 100% of these types of injuries. Applying the CCR allows emergency clinicians to safely decrease the need for imaging among the trauma patient population by >40%. Subsequent studies have found a sensitivity of 90% to 100% for cervical spine injury, with the majority finding 99% to 100% sensitivity.
The CCR is difficult to memorize due to its multiple criteria; using a smartphone app or digital reference is recommended. It can be used in patients who are intoxicated if the patient is alert and cooperative, regardless of blood alcohol level. The quoted sensitivities are all for cervical spine injury. Some practice environments might be concerned with identifying any cervical spine injury, as the CCR is highly sensitive for clinically important cervical spine imaging.
The lone trial with a sensitivity of 90% was a study in which nurses were trained to apply the CCR; retrospective review by investigators in this study found the rule was misapplied in 4 cases with obvious high-risk features. The CCR has also been successfully evaluated in paramedics.
If a patient has any high-risk factors (eg, aged >65 years, a defined dangerous mechanism, or paresthesias in the arms or legs) then cervical spine imaging is required. Cervical spine imaging is required if a patient has no high-risk factors but meets none of the defined low-risk criteria (eg, sitting position in the emergency department, ambulatory at any time, delayed [not immediate onset] neck pain, no midline tenderness, simple rear-end motor vehicle collision [excludes pushed into traffic, hit by bus/ large truck, rollover, or hit by high-speed vehicle]). If a patient has no high-risk factors and has neck pain, but meets even 1 low-risk factor, then it is safe to assess the patient's ability to rotate the neck 45 degrees to the left and right. If the patient can do this (even with some pain or discomfort), then no further imaging is required; if not, then cervical spine imaging is indicated.
Exclusion criteria for the Canadian C-Spine Rule:
Daniel Runde, MD
In the derivation study, the authors looked at the primary endpoint of clinically significant cervical spine injury. The validation study included a convenience sample of 8924 patients, aged 16 to 64 years, who presented to 10 Canadian trauma centers with stable vital signs and a Glasgow coma scale score of 15. Among the study population, 1.7% of patients had clinically significant cervi-cal spine injury. The CCR was found to be 100% sensitive for ruling out cervical spine injury (defined as any fracture, dislocation, or ligamentous injury). Researchers also detected 96.4% (27 of 28) cervical spine injuries that were clinically insignificant (defined as injuries that do not require stabilization or specialized treatment and are unlikely to cause any long-term problems).
Ian Stiell, MD, MSc, FRCPC
The Injury Severity Score (ISS) was initially derived in patients with blunt traumatic injury from motor vehicle accidents. The ISS is not intended to be used for bedside decision-making for a single patient in the emergency department setting, but rather as a tool to standardize the study of trauma patients. Due to the nature of the score, multiple combinations of Abbreviated Injury Scale (AIS) scores may result in the same ISS, each of which may indicate a different mortality rate. For example, an ISS of 17 can be calculated from patients with a combination of points based on the 3 most severe injuries, such as (4, 1, 0) or (3, 2, 2). The ISS assigns equal value to each body region.
In all trauma patients, the initial treatment strategy should focus on the primary and secondary survey, and assessing and stabilizing the patient. Although the ISS is intended primarily for research purposes, it may have broader clinical use in the intensive care unit for prognostication following the initial stabilization of traumatic injuries.
Max Berger, MD
Alexandra Ortego, MD
First, the most severe injury from each of 6 body systems is assigned an AIS score on a scale of 0 (no injury) to 6 (unsurvivable injury). Next, those scores are used to determine the 3 most injured body systems. Finally, the ISS is calculated by squaring the AIS score for each of the 3 most injured body systems, then adding up the 3 squared numbers (A2 + B2 + C2 = ISS, where A, B, and C are the AIS scores of the most severe injury in each of the 3 most severely injured body systems). Patients with an AIS of 6 in any body system are automatically assigned an ISS of 75, the maximum possible score.
The ISS is used primarily in research settings, so calculation of the score should not delay initial management of patients with traumatic injuries.
The ISS was derived by Baker et al (1974) by taking the previously used AIS (American Medical Association Committee on Medical Aspects of Automotive Safety 1971) and adding the squared value of each of the 3 most severely injured body systems, in an effort to add increasing importance to the most severe injuries. The top 3 most severe injuries were used to calculate the final score because it had been shown that injuries that would not necessarily be life-threatening in isolation could have a significant effect on mortality when they occurred in combination with other severe injuries. The derivation study included only injuries sustained from motor vehicle collisions, including the occupants of the vehicles and any pedestrians involved.
Further studies have validated the ISS to include other mechanisms of injury. A study by Beverland et al (1983) of 875 patients with gunshot wounds showed that an increasing ISS was associated with increasing mortality (chi-squared = 83.31, P < .001). A study by Bull (1978) confirmed the correlation between increasing ISS and increasing mortality in road traffic accidents, and showed correlation be-tween increasing ISS and increasing mean hospital length of stay.
In a study of 8852 trauma patients from the Illinois Trauma Program (including both vehicular and nonvehicular trauma), Semmlow et al (1976) had similar findings to Baker et al regarding the relationship between ISS and mortality. They also found that the ISS correlated with hospital length of stay.
Susan P. Baker, MPH
Karen Lind, MD, MACM, FACEP; Amy Do-Nguyen, MD
Michael P. Jones, MD, FACEP; Leslie V. Simon, DO, FACEP
April 15, 2021
April 14, 2024
4 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits.™ Specialty CME Credits: Included as part of the 4 credits, this CME activity is eligible for 4 Trauma CME credits, subject to your state and institutional approval.
Date of Original Release: April 15, 2021. Date of most recent review: April 1, 2021. Termination date: April 15, 2024.
Accreditation: EB Medicine is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to provide continuing medical education for physicians. This activity has been planned and implemented in accordance with the accreditation requirements and policies of the ACCME.
Credit Designation: EB Medicine designates this enduring material for a maximum of 4 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits™. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.
Specialty CME: Included as part of the 4 credits, this CME activity is eligible for 4 Trauma CME credits, subject to your state and institutional requirements.
Needs Assessment: The need for this educational activity was determined by a survey of medical staff, including the editorial board of this publication; review of morbidity and mortality data from the CDC, AHA, NCHS, and ACEP; and evaluation of prior activities for emergency physicians.
Target Audience: This enduring material is designed for emergency medicine physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and residents.
Goals: Upon completion of this activity, you should be able to: (1) demonstrate medical decision-making based on the strongest clinical evidence; (2) cost-effectively diagnose and treat the most critical presentations; and (3) describe the most common medicolegal pitfalls for each topic covered.
CME Objectives: Upon completion of this activity, you should be able to: (1) provide evidence-based prehospital and emergency department direction regarding immobilization of the cervical spine in neck trauma; (2) select the appropriate diagnostic tools to evaluate for vascular injuries associated with neck trauma; and (3) utilize the "no zone" approach for the management of penetrating neck injuries.
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