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Interpreting cervical spine radiographs

Essential knowledge for working in emergency medicine

  • By: L Huckerby, B Sharif, R Houghton, A Shaw
  • Published: 26 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1136/sbmj.e6991
  • Cite this as: StudentBMJ 2012;20:e6991

Basic interpretation of radiographs of musculoskeletal trauma is an essential skill for all doctors, particularly when working in acute settings such as emergency departments.

Cervical spine injuries often result from motor vehicle incidents, falls, sport injuries, and diving into shallow water. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports more than three million road traffic injuries a year in the United States, and more than half of these include injury to the neck.1

The cervical spine radiograph is a commonly requested radiograph in emergency departments and is a mandatory part of the trauma series. It is also required in non-acute settings; for example, on geriatric wards and in patients with rheumatological diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Although interpreting a cervical spine radiograph can seem daunting, with a systematic structured approach, it can be done with confidence.

The cervical spine is made up of seven cervical vertebrae, forming a column

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