Imaging & Diagnostics

Spine Trauma Imaging Diagnostics Evaluation


Imaging diagnostics are an essential element in the evaluation of spine trauma. Over the last few decades, the rapid evolution of imaging technology has tremendously changed the assessment and treatment of spinal injuries. Imaging diagnostics utilizing CT and MRI, among others, are helpful in the acute and the chronic settings. Spinal cord and soft-tissue injuries are best evaluated by magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, whereas computed tomography scanning, or CT scans, best evaluate spinal trauma or spine fracture. The purpose of the article below is to demonstrate the significance of imaging diagnostics in spine trauma.

Cervical Spine Fracture Evaluation

Practice Essentials

Approximately 5-10% of unconscious patients who present to the ED as the result of a motor vehicle accident or fall have a major injury to the cervical spine. Most cervical spine fractures occur predominantly at two levels: one-third of injuries occur at the level of C2, and one-half of injuries occur at the level of C6 or C7. Most fatal cervical spine injuries occur in upper cervical levels, either at craniocervical junction C1 or C2. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]


The normal anatomy of the cervical spine consists of 7 cervical vertebrae separated by intervertebral disks and joined by a complex network of ligaments. These ligaments keep individual bony elements behaving as a single unit. [7]

View the cervical spine as three distinct columns: anterior, middle, and posterior. The anterior column is composed of the anterior longitudinal ligament and the anterior two-thirds of the vertebral bodies, the annulus fibrosus and the intervertebral disks. The middle column is composed of the posterior longitudinal ligament and the posterior one-third of the vertebral bodies, the annulus, and intervertebral discs. The posterior column contains all of the bony elements formed by the pedicles, transverse processes, articulating facets, laminae, and spinous processes.

The anterior and posterior longitudinal ligaments maintain the structural integrity of the anterior and middle columns. The posterior column is held in alignment by a complex ligamentous system, including the nuchal ligament complex, capsular ligaments, and the ligamenta flava.

If one column is disrupted, other columns may provide sufficient stability to prevent spinal cord injury. If two columns are disrupted, the spine may move as two separate units, increasing the likelihood of spinal cord injury.

The atlas (C1) and the axis (C2) differ markedly from other cervical vertebrae. The atlas has no vertebral body; however, it is composed of a thick anterior arch with two prominent lateral masses and a thin posterior arch. The axis contains the odontoid process that represents fused remnants of the atlas body. The odontoid process is held in tight approximation to the posterior aspect of the anterior arch of C1 by the transverse ligament, which stabilizes the atlantoaxial joint. [9, 7]

Apical, alar and transverse ligaments provide further stabilization by allowing spinal column rotation; this prevents posterior displacement of the dens in relation to the atlas.

In pediatric patients, the spine is more flexible, and therefore, neural damage occurs much earlier than musculoskeletal injury in young patients. Because of this high flexibility, fatal consequences can occur with sometimes even minimal structural damage. Compared to adults, children have a different fulcrum because of a relatively large head, the vertebrae are not completely ossified, and the ligaments are firmly attached to articular bone surfaces that are more horizontal, making the pathophysiology of injury in children different from that in adults. [6, 10]

The neck consists of seven bones, or the cervical vertebrae, which support the head and connect it the body. A cervical fracture is commonly referred to as a broken neck. Cervical spine fractures often occur due to trauma or injury, such as from automobile accidents or slip-and-fall accidents. Imaging diagnostics have advanced to be able to help healthcare professionals diagnose cervical spine health issues.

Dr. Alex Jimenez D.C., C.C.S.T.

Evaluation of injury

When a cervical spine injury is suspected, neck movement should be minimized during transport to the treating facility. Ideally, the patients should be transported on a backboard with a semirigid collar, with the neck stabilized on the sides of the head with sandbags or foam blocks taped from side to side (of the board), across the forehead.

If spinal malalignment is identified, place the patient in skeletal traction with tongs as soon as possible (with very few exceptions), even if no evidence of neurologic deficit exists. The specific injury involved and capabilities of the consulting staff guide further management.

Place tongs one finger width above the earlobes in alignment with the external auditory canal. The consultant applies the tongs for traction under close neurologic and radiograph surveillance. Care must be taken while managing the airway in patients with potential cervical spine injuries. Video-assisted intubation should be considered to limit cervical spine motion during the process of securing the airway. [11, 12, 13, 1]

Cervical spine injuries are best classified according to several mechanisms of injury. These include flexion, flexion-rotation, extension, extension-rotation, vertical compression, lateral flexion, and imprecisely understood mechanisms that may result in odontoid fractures and atlanto-occipital dislocation. [1, 14, 4, 5, 15, 7, 16]

Radiographic evaluation is indicated in the following:
[2, 2, 17, 18, 15, 19, 20]

  • Patients who exhibit neurologic deficits consistent with a cord lesion
  • Patients with an altered sensorium from head injury or intoxication
  • Patients who complain about neck pain or tenderness
  • Patients who do not complain about neck pain or tenderness but have significant distracting injuries

A standard trauma series is composed of 5 views: cross-table lateral, swimmer’s, oblique, odontoid, and anteroposterior. Approximately 85-90% of cervical spine injuries are evident in the lateral view, making it the most useful view from a clinical standpoint.

The advent of readily available multidetector computed tomography has supplanted the use of plain radiography at many centers. Recent literature supports CT as more sensitive with lower rates of missed primary and secondary injury. [14]

Thoracic Spinal Trauma Imaging

Computed Tomography


Thin-section axial CT performed by using a bone algorithm is the single most sensitive means by which to diagnose fractures of the thoracic spine. Routine helical CT scans of the thoracic spine are valuable because multisection CT scanners can generate high-resolution spinal images, even during a primary multisystemic trauma evaluation. [21, 22, 28, 29]

The CT images below display various thoracic spinal traumatic injuries.

Figure 1: Lateral 3-dimensional maximum intensity projection CT scan of multiple upper thoracic and lower cervical spinous process fractures. The force necessary to fracture the spinous processes of the upper thoracic spine may also involve the lower cervical spine.
Figure 2: Three-dimensional CT scan of complex mid-face fractures including a Le Fort I injury in a patient who had fractures of the upper thoracic and lower cervical spinous processes. Sudden deceleration of the face and skull resulted in severe stress forces on the spinous processes.
Figure 3: Axial CT scan of a T12 compression fracture demonstrates a fracture line through the anterior body of the T12 (white arrow), posterior displacement of the T12 vertebral endplate (black arrow) into the spinal canal, and a fracture of the left transverse spinous process.
Figure 4: Axial and sagittal CT images of an acute lower thoracic spine compression fracture. Note the paraspinal hematoma (white arrows) and the slight narrowing of the spinal canal at the level of the compression fracture (double yellow arrows).
Figure 5: Three-dimensional CT scan of the thoracic spine demonstrates a compression fracture.
Figure 6: Sagittal CT scan of the thoracic and lumbar spine demonstrates a complete distraction fracture at the L1-2 interspace (arrow).
Figure 7: Axial CT image of an unstable fracture of the thoracic spine. Note the association of compression of the vertebral body with laminar and pedicle fractures. Injury to the anterior, middle and posterior columns results in an unstable fracture.
Figure 8: Coronal multiplanar reformatted CT images of an unstable thoracic spinal fracture. The association of both anterior compression and lateral subluxation (arrows) indicates instability.
Figure 9: Volume maximum intensity projection CT image of the entire thoracic spine demonstrates spinous process fractures of the C7 through T7 vertebra. Although spinous process fractures of the T1 may occur in a manner similar to a clay shoveler’s fracture of the C6 or C7, middle and lower thoracic spinous process fractures most likely occur due to a combination of forward flexion and axial rotation. Note the lack of findings of compression vertebral body fractures.
Figure 10: Three-dimensional surface CT image of the cervical spine. Note the spinous process fractures of the C6, C7, and T1. CT examination of both the cervical and the thoracic spine was obtained as a single study using a multisection CT scanner. All images were obtained by using a 3-mm reconstruction with 1.5-mm collimation. Scanning times were 0.5 seconds per rotation. These 3-dimensional images were reconstructed by using an independent imaging workstation. In complex cases, reconstructed images are very useful in consultation with treating physicians.
Figure 11: Scout view image from a spiral CT scan shows a complete subluxation fracture (curved blue lines) of the lower thoracic spine. Such an injury combines lateral displacement with rotational injury (arrow).
Figure 12: Fracture dislocation of the lower thoracic spine. Axial CT image demonstrates the large distance that the lower thoracic spine has been displaced.
Figure 13: Axial CT myelogram in a patient with a gunshot wound to the thoracic spine. While a fracture is obvious, the injury also resulted in a dural tear with a freely leaking cerebrospinal fluid space (white arrow). The midline fracture of the vertebral body is noted in the lower image (black arrow).
Figure 14: Axial CT image demonstrates a complex fracture of the T12 with rotation subluxation. Air was introduced into the epidural space during the injury.
Figure 15: Sagittal multi-planar CT image of a burst fracture following fixation. The image has been cut in the sagittal plane. Surgical repair of unstable thoracic spine fractures, such as this burst fracture, usually involves placement of an interposition graft (double black arrow) together with a lateral plate held in position by screws placed into the vertebral body above and below the injury. A residual fragment of the burst fracture is seen anteriorly (white arrow). The double white arrow illustrates the restored spinal canal.
Figure 16: Shaded-surface 3-dimensional CT image of a burst fracture following fixation. The image has been cut in the sagittal plane. Surgical repair of unstable thoracic spine fractures, such as this burst fracture, usually involves placement of an interposition graft (double black arrow) together with a lateral plate held in position by screws placed into the vertebral body above and below the injury. A residual fragment of the burst fracture is seen anteriorly (white arrow).
Figure 17: Shaded-surface 3-dimensional CT image of a gunshot wound to the thoracic spine. Although the bullet passed into the interspace, causing a fracture of the vertebral body, the bullet stopped within the spinal canal. Note the outline drawn around the bullet (arrow).
Figure 18: Shaded-surface 3-dimensional CT scan of a gunshot wound to the thoracic spine. In other cases, the bullet may enter the spinal canal superior to the final position in the canal. The passage of the bullet within the spinal canal (yellow arrow) destroys the spinal cord and also may result in a fracture of the vertebral body. Note that the bullet has been darkened (blue arrow).
Figure 19: Axial CT image in a man with known pulmonary tuberculosis and back pain. Note the left-sided paraspinal abscess (arrow).
Figure 20: Sagittal shaded-surface 3-dimensional reconstruction CT scan of the lower thoracic spine. The spinal image has been cut in the midsagittal plane to demonstrate posterior displacement of the thoracic spinal vertebral body (arrow) and downward displacement of the superior endplate. Note the general wedge shape of the vertebral body.

Because of its superior contrast definition and the absence of superimposed structures, good-quality CT imaging depicts more thoracic spinal injuries than do conventional radiographic studies. However, the percentage of clinically important fractures that are seen on CT scans but not on radiographs is lower with thoracic than with cervical spinal fractures. Most of the fractures missed on radiographs were spinous process fractures, transverse processes fractures, and fractures in large patients. Because axial CT is performed with patients in a neutral position, bony distraction of the fracture fragments and subluxations of the spinal articulations may not be as significant on CT images as on they are on acute trauma-series radiographs. [22, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32]

The level of a burst fracture and the percentage of spinal canal stenosis have been correlated with associated neurologic deficits. A significant correlation exists between neurologic deficit and the percentage of spinal canal stenosis. The higher the level of injury, the greater the probability of neurologic deficit. This association may be related to the smaller canal diameter in the upper thoracic spine. The severity of neurologic deficit cannot be predicted.

In patients with Chance-type fractures, CT scans often show a burst-type fracture with posterior cortex buckling or retropulsion, and serial transaxial CT images often show a gradual loss of definition of the pedicles. [23]

The thoracic spine, located between the cervical and lumbar vertebrae, consists of 12 vertebrae levels. Thoracic spinal trauma, including spinal cord injuries along the middle of the spine, can generally be severe, however, with early treatment, long-term prognosis is good. Therefore, imaging diagnostics for thoracic spinal trauma are essential. Many healthcare professionals can provide patients with these services.

Dr. Alex Jimenez D.C., C.C.S.T.

Degree of Confidence

The confidence level for the diagnosis of a thoracic spinal fracture with 2-mm axial sections (possible with a multisection CT unit) is greater than 98% and reportedly 99%.

Because axial CT is performed with the patient in a neutral position, a bony distraction of the fracture fragments and subluxations of the spinal articulations may not be as significant on CT images as on acute trauma-series radiographs.

False Positives/Negatives

False-positive results may occur in patients with a Schmorl node, which is a chronic internal herniation of the vertebral disk into the thoracic vertebral body endplate and failure of the fusion of the anterior vertebral endplate epiphysis, resulting in a limbus vertebra. False-negative CT studies may occur in chronic stress injuries and severe generalized osteoporotic endplate fractures.

It has been reported that among trauma patients who had a chest and/or abdominal CT, fractures of the thoracic spine are frequently underreported. Sagittal reformats of the spine obtained from thin sections, and morphometric analysis using electronic calipers help to identify fractures that might otherwise not be identified. [25]

In conclusion, imaging diagnostics of spinal trauma or spine fracture are essential towards the assessment and treatment of patients. Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is helpful in the evaluation of spinal cord and soft-tissue injuries whereas computed tomography scanning, or CT scans, is helpful in the evaluation of spinal trauma or spine fracture. The understanding of imaging technology has tremendously enhanced advances in treatment.  The scope of our information is limited to chiropractic, spinal injuries, and conditions. To discuss the subject matter, please feel free to ask Dr. Jimenez or contact us at 915-850-0900 .

Curated by Dr. Alex Jimenez

Additional Topics: Acute Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most prevalent causes of disability and missed days at work worldwide. Back pain attributes to the second most common reason for doctor office visits, outnumbered only by upper-respiratory infections. Approximately 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at least once throughout their life. The spine is a complex structure made up of bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles, among other soft tissues. Because of this, injuries and/or aggravated conditions, such as herniated discs, can eventually lead to symptoms of back pain. Sports injuries or automobile accident injuries are often the most frequent cause of back pain, however, sometimes the simplest of movements can have painful results. Fortunately, alternative treatment options, such as chiropractic care, can help ease back pain through the use of spinal adjustments and manual manipulations, ultimately improving pain relief.

EXTRA EXTRA | IMPORTANT TOPIC: Chiropractic Neck Pain Treatment

Post Disclaimer

Professional Scope of Practice *

The information herein on "Spine Trauma Imaging Diagnostics Evaluation" is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional or licensed physician and is not medical advice. We encourage you to make healthcare decisions based on your research and partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.

Blog Information & Scope Discussions

Our information scope is limited to Chiropractic, musculoskeletal, acupuncture, physical medicines, wellness, contributing etiological viscerosomatic disturbances within clinical presentations, associated somatovisceral reflex clinical dynamics, subluxation complexes, sensitive health issues, and/or functional medicine articles, topics, and discussions.

We provide and present clinical collaboration with specialists from various disciplines. Each specialist is governed by their professional scope of practice and their jurisdiction of licensure. We use functional health & wellness protocols to treat and support care for the injuries or disorders of the musculoskeletal system.

Our videos, posts, topics, subjects, and insights cover clinical matters, issues, and topics that relate to and directly or indirectly support our clinical scope of practice.*

Our office has reasonably attempted to provide supportive citations and has identified the relevant research studies supporting our posts. We provide copies of supporting research studies available to regulatory boards and the public upon request.

We understand that we cover matters that require an additional explanation of how it may assist in a particular care plan or treatment protocol; therefore, to further discuss the subject matter above, please feel free to ask Dr. Alex Jimenez, DC, or contact us at 915-850-0900.

We are here to help you and your family.


Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, RN*, CCST, IFMCP*, CIFM*, ATN*


Licensed as a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) in Texas & New Mexico*
Texas DC License # TX5807, New Mexico DC License # NM-DC2182

Licensed as a Registered Nurse (RN*) in Florida
Florida License RN License # RN9617241 (Control No. 3558029)
Compact Status: Multi-State License: Authorized to Practice in 40 States*

Presently Matriculated: ICHS: MSN* FNP (Family Nurse Practitioner Program)

Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, RN* CIFM*, IFMCP*, ATN*, CCST
My Digital Business Card

Recent Posts

Posterolateral Corner Injuries: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Individuals who have sustained trauma to the knee area from work, physical activity, or a… Read More

July 23, 2024

The Levator Scapulae Muscles on Spine Stabilization and Posture

The levator scapulae muscles could be overstretched for individuals experiencing upper back, shoulder, and neck… Read More

July 22, 2024

Relieve Pain and Numbness: Managing Piriformis Syndrome

For individuals experiencing piriformis syndrome. Can knowing the causes and what it feels like help… Read More

July 19, 2024

Treating Annular Fissure: Medical Care for Pain and Symptoms

An annular fissure is caused by age-related changes to the spine, which often do not… Read More

July 18, 2024

Harnessing the Power of Lemongrass: Health Benefits and Uses

Can incorporating lemongrass into a diet help individuals manage anxiety, colds, fever, inflammation, and insomnia?… Read More

July 17, 2024

Neurological Physical Therapy: Restoring Mobility and Function

Can neurological physical therapy help individuals diagnosed with a recently acquired or chronic neurological condition… Read More

July 16, 2024