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Emerg Med J. 2004 May; 21(3): 302–305.
PMCID: PMC1726318

Emergency department intubation of trauma patients with undiagnosed cervical spine injury


Objectives: Some trauma patients have an undiagnosed cervical spine injury but require immediate airway control. This paper reports an emergency department's (ED) experience with these patients. In particular, is there a worse neurological outcome?

Methods: A retrospective study over 6.5 years, based on prospectively collected data from the Royal Perth Hospital trauma registry. Patients with a cervical spine injury were identified and clinical data were abstracted. The primary outcome measure was evidence of exacerbation of cervical spine injury as a result of intubation by ED medical staff.

Results: 308 patients (1.9%) of the 15 747 trauma patients were intubated by ED medical staff. Thirty seven (12%) were subsequently verified to have a cervical spine injury, of which 36 were managed with orotracheal intubation. Twenty five (69%) survived to have a meaningful post-intubation neurological examination. Fourteen (56%) of these 25 patients had an unstable cervical spine injury. Ninety per cent of all ED intubations were by ED medical staff. No worsening of neurological outcomes occurred.

Conclusions: Every ninth trauma patient that this ED intubates has a cervical spine injury. Intubation by ED medical staff did not worsen neurological outcome. In the controlled setting of an ED staffed by senior practitioners, patients with undiagnosed cervical spine injury can be safely intubated.

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