Ethical concerns have hindered any randomised control blinded studies on the imaging required to assess the cervical spine in an unconscious trauma patient. The issue has been contentious for many years and has resulted in burgeoning but inconclusive guidance. MRI and multislice CT technology have made rapid advances, but the literature is slower to catch up. Never the less there appears to be an emerging consensus for the multiply injured patient. The rapid primary clinical survey should be followed by lateral cervical spine, chest and pelvic radiographs. If a patient is unconscious then CT of the brain and at least down to C3 (and in the USA down to D1) has now become routine. The cranio-cervical scans should be a maximum of 2 mm thickness, and probably less, as undisplaced type II peg fractures, can be invisible even on 1 mm slices with reconstructions. If the lateral cervical radiograph and the CT scan are negative, then MRI is the investigation of choice to exclude instability. Patients with focal neurological signs, evidence of cord or disc injury, and patients whose surgery require pre-operative cord assessment should be imaged by MRI. It is also the investigation of choice for evaluating the complications and late sequela of trauma. If the patient is to have an MRI scan, the MR unit must be able to at least do a sagittal STIR sequence of the entire vertebral column to exclude non-contiguous injuries, which, since the advent of MRI, are now known to be relatively common. Any areas of oedema or collapse then require detailed CT evaluation. It is important that cases are handled by a suitably skilled multidisciplinary team, and avoid repeat imaging due to technical inadequacies. The aim of this review is to re-examine the role of cervical spine imaging in the context of new guidelines and technical advances in imaging techniques. © 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
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