Most of our treatment strategy  in young children is based on our clinical judgement. The evidence on clearing cervical spines, in those older than 18 years, is clear, validated, accepted and is duty of care. The evidence for clearing the cervical spine is not as clear.  It is even more obscure for less than 8 year olds, being difficult to find much evidence at all. We tend to use good judgement more than anything else, for the very young. Good judgement is based on experience and experience is the result of bad judgement. However due to rare nature of this injury, our judgement is not based on experience, but more on good sense.

What do we already know?

  1. Cervical spine injuries in less than 8 year olds are rare.
  2. It is because of the low prevalence of the disease, that no decision rules exist.
  3. Tumour risk from imaging is high.
  4. Anatomy affects the pattern of injury

(a) <8 year olds have high cervical injuries and

(b) >8 year olds have low cervical injuries.

In adults we have the Nexus Criteria and the Canadian C-spine rules, however there is no specific rule for children and the literature is mostly retrospective.

The Canadian C spine Rule, did not include patients less than 18 years old, so it cannot be used.

The Nexus study included 3065 patients less than 18 years old. There were 26 cervical injuries in this group. Only 905 patients were less than 8 years old. In this later group, there were only 4 injuries, all high cervical. The numbers are small and although we can use nexus in the older age group ie., > 8 years old, we cannot use it for the younger group.

A further challenge occurs in the < 8 yo group; the very young are non-verbal; they can’t tell you if they have pain.

Most of the studies for younger children are retrospective. Leonard et al (1) found certain risk factors that are associated with cervical injury. The presence of one or more of these factors had a sensitivity of 98% and specificity of 26% for cervical injury. The factors were:

  • Altered mental status
  • Focal neurological deficit(s)Complaint of neck pain
  • Torticollis
  • Substantial torso injury
  • Diving
  • High risk motor vehicle crash
  • Predisposing conditions such as Downs Syndrome, Rheumatoid arthritis, Rickets, osteogenesis imperfecta, Klippel-Feil Disease, Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, Achondroplasia, Marfan Syndrome and Renal osteodystrophy

Hale et al(2) looked at children less than 5 years old, in a retrospective registry study. 2972 patients were included, of which 22(0.74%) had cervical injuries. All had clinical findings suggestive of cervical injury:

  1. Abnormal Neurology (82%)
  2. Torticollis(9%)
  3. Neck Pain(9%)

My Approach

Any child that presents with:

  • Major trauma
  • Intubated
  • de-gloving
  • Femoral  fractures as part of trauma
  • Depressed conscious state
  • Neurology- beware transient Symptoms
  • Neck pain complaint
  • Diving injury

Will get imaging- CT or MRI

In children older than 8 years of age

I will apply the Nexus Rule (3)

In children younger than 8 years old

I will apply judgement, + Nexus + X-ray.

In children that can answer questions, I’l feel down the midline of the neck and make them turn the head and simply engage and distract and play, until, I am happy that there is no pain. If there is some minor pain and no real mechanism, I give some simple analgesia such as Paracetamol and review.

In the non-verbal group I will watch. I’ll feel the c spine, to ensure I can’t elicit pain. I will then watch them play and ensure they are able to turn the head unaided and with no pain.


1Leonard JC, Kuppermann N, Olsen C, Babcock-Cimpello L, Brown K, Mahajan P, et al. Factors associated with cervical spine injury in children after blunt trauma. Ann Emerg Med. 2011; 58(2): 145-55

2Hale, DF, Fitxpatrick C.M, Doski J.J, Ronald M,Mueller D.L. Absence of clinical findings reliably excludes unstable cervical spine injurie in children 5 years or younger. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery May 2015, Vol 78, Issue 5, pp., 943-948

3 Goergen S, Ditchfield M, Babl F, Oakley E, Rahman T, Johnson S. Paediatric Cervical Spine Trauma. Education Modules for Appropriate Imaging Referrals: Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists; 2015.