This report presents a case of missed upper cervical spine fracture following a motor vehicle accident and illustrates various clinical and radiographic considerations necessary in the evaluation of post traumatic cervical spine injuries. Specific clinical signs and symptoms, as well as radiographic clues should prompt the astute clinician to suspect a fracture even when plain film radiographs have been reported as normal.
A 44-year-old male was referred for an orthopaedic consultation for assessment of headaches following a high speed head-on motor vehicle accident eleven weeks prior to his presentation. Cervical spine radiographs taken at an emergency ward the day of the collision were reported as essentially normal.
Subsequent radiographs taken eleven weeks later revealed a fracture through the body of axis with anterior displacement of atlas. A review of the initial radiographs clearly demonstrated signs suggesting an upper cervical fracture.
Intervention and outcome:
Initially the patient was prescribed a soft collar which he wore daily until an orthopaedic consultation eleven weeks later. Fifteen weeks following trauma, the patient was considered for surgical intervention, due to persistent headaches associated with the development of neurological signs suggestive of early onset of cervical myelopathy.
Cervical spine fractures can have disastrous consequences if not detected early. A thorough clinical and radiological evaluation is essential in any patient presenting with a history of neck or head trauma. Repeated plain film radiographs are imperative in the event of inadequate visualization of the cervical vertebrae. When in doubt, further imaging studies such as computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging are required to rule out a fracture.
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