The characteristics and pre-hospital management of blunt trauma patients with suspected spinal column injuries: a retrospective observational study

J. T. Oosterwold*, D. C. Sagel, P. M. van Grunsven, M. Holla, J. de Man-van Ginkel, S. Berben

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Background Pre-hospital spinal immobilisation by emergency medical services (EMS) staff is currently the standard of care in cases of suspected spinal column injuries. There is, however, a lack of data on the characteristics of patients who received spinal immobilisation during the pre-hospital phase and on the adverse effects of immobilisation. The objectives of this study were threefold. First, we determined the pre-hospital characteristics of blunt trauma patients with suspected spinal column injuries who were immobilised by EMS staff. Second, we assessed the choices made by EMS staff regarding spinal immobilisation techniques and reasons for immobilisation. Third, we researched the possible adverse effects of immobilisation.

    Design A retrospective observational study in a cohort of blunt trauma patients.

    Study method Data of blunt trauma patients with suspected spinal column injuries were collected from one EMS organisation between January 2008 and January 2013. Coded data and free text notes were analysed.

    Results A total of 1082 patients were included in this study. Spinal immobilisation was applied in 96.3 % of the patients based on valid pre-hospital criteria. In 2.1 % of the patients immobilisation was not based on valid criteria. Data of 1.6 % patients were missing. Main reasons for spinal immobilisation were posterior midline spinal tenderness (37.2 % of patients) and painful distracting injuries (13.5 % of patients). Spinal cord injury (SCI) was suspected in 5.7 % of the patients with posterior midline spinal tenderness. A total of 15.8 % patients were immobilised using non-standard methods. The reason for departure from the standard method was explained for 3 % of these patients. Reported adverse effects included pain (n = 10, 0.9 %,); shortness of breath (n = 3, 0.3 %); combativeness or anxiety (n = 6, 0.6 %); and worsening of pain when supine (n = 1, 0.1 %).

    Conclusion/recommendation Spinal immobilisation was applied in 96.3 % of all included patients based on pre-hospital criteria. We found that consensus among EMS staff on how to interpret the criterion 'distracting injury' was lacking. Furthermore, the adverse effects of spinal immobilisation were incompletely documented in pre-hospital care reports. To provide validated information on potential symptoms of SCI, a uniform EMS scoring system for motoric assessment should be developed.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)513-524
    Number of pages12
    JournalEuropean Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Aug-2017


    • Blunt trauma
    • Pre-hospital
    • Spinal column injury
    • Spinal immobilisation
    • Emergency medical services
    • Retrospective observational study

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