Delayed diagnosis of thoracolumbar fractures in multiple-trauma patients

Stephen Anderson, Michelle H. Biros, Robert F. Reardon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Objectives: To determine the frequency of delayed diagnosis of major thoracolumbar vertebral fractures (T-L Fxs) in ED multiple-trauma patients, and to determine the differences between cases of delayed and nondelayed diagnoses of T-L Fx. Methods: A retrospective chart review was conducted of 181 trauma patients with 310 major T-L Fxs (compression, burst, or chance Fxs or dislocations). Data collected included the time of the diagnosis of T-L Fx, the patient's clinical presentation in the ED, the mechanism of injury, and the outcome. Results: Of the 181 patients with major T-L Fxs, 138 were diagnosed in the ED (nondelayed group), and 43 were diagnosed after the patient left the ED (delayed group). Of these, 33 cases occurred in unstable patients requiring emergent medical imaging and/or operation, 7 occurred when emergency physicians failed to detect subtle compression Fxs on ED radiographs, and 3 occurred in stable patients who were not radiographed in the ED. The delayed group were more often critical, and hypotensive, and had lower Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) scores than did the nondelayed group. The delayed group patients also had more cervical spine injuries, multiple noncontiguous spinal Fxs, high-energy mechanisms of injury, and direct blunt assaults to the back than did the nondelayed group patients. There were 13 patients with T-L Fxs, GCS scores = 15, and normal back examinations. There were 43 patients who had neurologic deficits associated with their injuries; 11 patients with incomplete cord lesions progressed, including 3 in the delayed group. Conclusions: A delay in the diagnosis of T-L Fx in hospitalized trauma patients is frequently associated with an unstable patient condition that necessitates higher-priority procedures than ED T-L spine radiographs. Such patients should receive spinal precautions until more complete evaluation can be performed. The decision to selectively radiograph T-L spines in multiple-trauma patients should consider the mechanism of injury, the presence of possible confounders to physical examination, and clinical signs and symptoms of back injury.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)832-839
Number of pages8
JournalAcademic Emergency Medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1996


  • injury
  • multiple trauma
  • spine fractures
  • thoracolumbar spine


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