Magnetic resonance imaging for the evaluation of patients with occult cervical spine injury

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  • 1 Division of Neurosurgery and Department of Radiology, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Division of Neurosurgery, Dartmouth—Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire
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✓ Because it is often difficult to diagnose accurately the structurally intact cervical spine after acute trauma, a series of patients was evaluated with magnetic resonance (MR) imaging to assess its efficacy for the evaluation and clearance of the cervical spine in a trauma victim in the early posttrauma period. Ultralow-field MR imaging was used to evaluate 174 posttraumatic patients in whom physical findings indicated the potential for spine injury or minor radiographic findings indicated injury. This series includes only those patients who did not appear to harbor disruption of spinal integrity on the basis of a routine x-ray film. None had clinically obvious injury.

Of the 174 patients, 62 (36%) had soft-tissue abnormalities identified by MR imaging, including disc interspace disruption in 27 patients (four with ventral and dorsal ligamentous injury, three with ventral ligamentous injury alone, 18 with dorsal ligamentous injury alone, and two without ventral or dorsal ligamentous injury). Isolated ligamentous injury was observed in 35 patients (eight with ventral and dorsal ligamentous injury, five with ventral ligamentous injury alone, and 22 with dorsal ligamentous injury alone). One patient underwent a surgical fusion procedure, 35 patients (including the one treated surgically) were placed in a cervical collar for at least 1 month, and 27 patients were placed in a thermoplastic Minerva jacket for at least 2 months. All had a satisfactory outcome without evidence of instability.

The T2-weighted sagittal images were most useful in defining acute soft-tissue injury; axial images were of minimal assistance. Posttraumatic soft-tissue cervical spine injuries and disc herniations (most likely preexisting the trauma) are more common than expected. A negative MR image should be considered as confirmation of a negative or “cleared” subaxial cervical spine. Diagnostic and patient management algorithms may be appropriately tailored by this information. Thus, MR imaging is useful for early acute posttrauma assessment in a very select group of patients.

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Contributor Notes

Address reprint requests to: Edward C. Benzel, M.D., Division of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131.
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