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Paediatric cervical spine injuries


A 14-year-old male presents to your Emergency Department by private car with neck pain following a failed backflip whilst playing on the family trampoline at home.

You are approached by the Triage Nurse to ‘try and clear his neck’ so he can avoid a spinal collar and the unnecessary use of a bed. So you head over to see the patient…

He reports attempting a backflip. However, he paused halfway through the rotation, causing him to fall and land directly on his head. His neck extended significantly during this impact. There was no loss of consciousness, and he has no specific neurological symptoms (altered sensation, weakness etc).

He reports immediate left-sided neck pain and poor range of motion but was able to mobilise immediately afterwards.

He is normally fit and well.

No significant PMHx

No regular medications

No known allergies

Immunisations were up-to-date.

Back to the question – are you able to clear his neck clinically?

The two commonly used clinical decision rules for cervical spine clearance are the Canadian C-spine Rules (CCR) and NEXUS. But are they helpful in the paediatric population?

The Canadian C-Spine Rules

The Canadian Cervical Spine Rules flowchart

The CCRs excluded patients less than 16 years of age. They cannot, therefore, be applied to our patient in this case.

The NEXUS rules

The NEXUS criteria for clearing cervical spines

The NEXUS study enrolled over 34,000 patients (aged less than one year to 101) and identified all but 8 of the 818 patients who had cervical spine injury (sensitivity 99.0%).

There were 3065 children in the study with only 30 cases of spinal cord injury. Only 905 children aged <8 years were enrolled, of which only four had injuries.

NEXUS performed well in this paediatric subgroup;

  • Sensitivity 100%, Specificity 19.9%
  • NPV 100%, PPV 1.2%
  • No ‘low-risk’ patients with subsequent spinal injury
  • Potential to reduce cervical spine imaging by ~20%.

With this in mind, you examine the patient with an unremarkable primary survey.

On examination of the neck, there is no midline tenderness, physical step or deformity. However, he does have significant left-sided neck tenderness on palpation and cannot rotate his neck due to pain.

Based on the degree of tenderness & inability to rotate the neck laterally, you order a plain cervical spine X-ray series…

There is an obvious disruption of the anterior and posterior vertebral line at C3/4 with ~5mm of anterior displacement. A facet joint appears subluxed anteriorly.

Based on these findings, you elect to proceed with a CT scan of the cervical spine.

Axial slices of the cervical spine

Now, how are we going to tackle this clinical question next time around …

Paediatric c-spine clearance.

Alert, asymptomatic and normal examination.

Apply NEXUS!

…and for those less than five years of age

The absence of clinical findings reliably excludes unstable cervical spine injuries in children 5 years or younger.

  • Normal neurological exam
  • Normal mentation
  • No neck pain
  • No torticollis

…then take the collar off & observe.

Painless range-of-motion, normal behaviour & neck movement = cleared spine.

Cervical spine signs and symptoms or Impaired consciousness = A CT scan or MRI is indicated.

Now we’ve seen what’s normal, let’s consider the potential injuries using the mnemonic – Jefferson Bit Off A Hangman’s Thumb.

Jefferson fracture

Burst fracture of C1.

Case courtesy of Andrew Dixon, From the case rID: 9601

Bilateral facet dislocation

A flexion distraction type of dislocation of the C-spine often results from buckling force.

Case courtesy of Gerry Gardner, From the case rID: 13990

Odontoid fracture (types II and III)

Specifically, types II & III.

Case courtesy of Dr Mohammad Taghi Niknejad,, rID: 21310

Atlanto-occipital dislocations

Severe injuries include both atlanto-occipital dislocations and atlanto-occipital subluxations.

Hangman fracture

Bilateral lamina and pedicle fracture at C2 with anterolisthesis of C2 on C3. Associated with judicial hangings.

Case courtesy of Maxime St-Amant, From the case rID: 19431

Teardrop fracture (extension)

Typically resulting in an avulsion of the anteroinferior corner of the vertebral body.

Often associated with central cord syndrome.

Denis’ columns

Any injury involving two or more of Denis’ columns is considered unstable. One of the more extreme examples of this is the ‘Chance fracture’, a flexion-distraction injury.

Crush fractures

An anterior crush fracture of >50% loss of height in the thoracolumbar spine or >25% of the cervical spine is considered unstable.


Slack, S. E. (2004). Clearing the cervical spine of paediatric trauma patients. Emergency Medicine Journal, 21(2), 189–193.

Hannon, M., Mannix, R., Dorney, K., Mooney, D., & Hennelly, K. (2015). Pediatric cervical spine injury evaluation after blunt trauma: a clinical decision analysis. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 65(3), 239–247.

Hale, D. F., Fitzpatrick, C. M., Doski, J. J., Stewart, R. M., & Mueller, D. L. (2015). Absence of clinical findings reliably excludes unstable cervical spine injuries in children 5 years or younger. The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 78(5), 943–948.

Viccellio P, Simon H, Pressman BD. A prospective multicenter study of cervical spine injury in children. Pediatrics. 2001; 108(2):E20. [pubmed]


Pediatric C-spine Clearance – via ERCAST

Pediatric Cervical Trauma Overview – via OrthoBullets

Clearing The Pediatric C-spine – via PEM ED

Pseudosubluxation of the C spine – via Wheeless’ Textbook of Orthopaedics


  • Chris Partyka is an Emergency Physician and Prehospital & Retrieval Specialist working in Sydney, NSW. He has a keen interest in medical education, ultrasound & coffee. He is the father of two young boys & tries to out-smart his paediatric patient's with an expanding knowledge of cartoons

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3 thoughts on “Paediatric cervical spine injuries”

  1. Actually my 4 year old son whenever moves his neck up and down there is a cracking popping or clicking sound each time he does it and he showed it to us 2 months back. He uses too much of mobile phones too. What can it visited the ortho and the xray says crepitus in c7. Doctor told to wait for 6 months more. What should be done next. Is it anything related to ligament or tendons.