Life Without the Boogeyman: Alternate Models of Emergency Spinal Care



Now that our review for Academic Emergency Medicine has been published, I wanted to devote a few words to a discussion that didn’t make it into the article.

We spent a lot of time trying to collate what’s known about one specific phenomenon: the blunt trauma patient with an “unstable” acute injury to his spine who suffers sudden neurological deterioration as a result of ordinary physiological movement. The reason we were interested in this event is because, whether or not we admit it, it’s the basis for our current model of prophylactic spinal immobilization. In other words, the reason we place collars, boards, and other devices on patients until they can be “cleared” is because we want to prevent this phenomenon from occurring.

Anybody who reads our review will probably deduce that we’re a little skeptical about this story. The available data is consistent with a clinical entity that is very rare, and when it does occur may be part of the inevitable natural progression of the disease rather than being a movement-provoked (and hence preventable) event.

This fits well with a rational understanding of the pathophysiology. The only mental model that explains the phenomenon of “sudden collapse” would be something like this: the spinal cord is intact, but is surrounded by a vertebral fracture which is both wholly unstable and contains some kind of knife-like bony structure which is poised to transect the cord given the wrong movement. Or perhaps: the bony integrity of the spine is totally lost at some level, and the cord is holding on purely by a few strands of nerve which (like guitar strings breaking) might pop loose with any movement.

These models might make sense to the naive layperson, but any medical professional who understands bones and nerves will have to admit that they’re a little silly. (A more realistic story of unstable spinal injuries, of course, is that disconnected structures compress the spine, causing real but much less dramatic sequela.) Do they never occur? Well, we can’t say that. They are not physical impossibilities, in the sense that they violate a law of thermodynamics or mathematics or grammar. But they are inconsistent with physiology — and in the absence of outcome data, physiological rationale is the only clay we’re working with.

How much room remains on the table for the sudden, irreversible event described in legend? At this point, it’s fair to say there is very little room. We cannot say there is none. There isn’t enough evidence for that. The knee-jerk EBM reaction is to suggest further study, but as Hauswald pointed out in his commentary, that may not be realistic. To make the distinction between “a very rare thing” and “nothing” would require a study of tremendous size, and even then a critic could still ask for more; proving non-existence is a philosophical impossibility.

But as pragmatists, we can say that “very very very rare” and “nonexistent” are clinically indistinguishable. It’s not impossible that beta blockers can cause anaphylactic reactions, that someone being operated upon could slip off the table, or that the hospital could lose power during a course of mechanical ventilation — yet we don’t feel obliged to inform patients about these risks. At some point, scenarios leave the realm of plausible and foreseeable sequelae and enter the territory of “anything’s possible.”

That being established, the question becomes this: if we banish the specter of the boogeyman, what are we left with? Does the entire concept of spinal immobilization become void? Am I an enemy of the board & collar?

No. Here are some alternate models.


The orthopedic model

This places spinal injury on the same level as other orthopedic diseases.

A patient arrives at the ED with a distal radius fracture. What do we do? We examine it clinically, we manage their pain, we obtain appropriate imaging to help guide our care, and — oh yes — we make some effort to immobilize the injury.

Why? Not because we’re afraid of any boogeyman. We aren’t terrified that if the patient lifts his arm and there is some miniscule movement, a hidden razorblade of bone will cut off his arm and render him immobile. Everyone would look at you like you were wearing a silly hat if you suggested that, because it’s a silly thing to say.

Nevertheless, it is probably wise to to make a good-faith effort at limiting movement around the site of injury. Unnecessary manipulation may promote further trauma to muscles, nerves, and vessels, which could induce unnecessary long-term morbidity, prolong recovery, or at least complicate management and increase acute pain.

And maybe that’s how we should view early spinal care. Nothing dramatic. No boogeymen. Just the same logical, unexciting approach that informs our approach to splints, slings, and casts.

You’ll notice that if we fail to apply those devices for five seconds, nobody freaks out, because it’s not that kind of intervention. You’ll also notice we can study their value in controlled studies without anybody gearing up for a lawsuit.


The “correlation is not causation” models

In our paper’s discussion, we briefly mentioned two possibilities that warrant further attention.

We are all supposedly clever people who understand how easily causation can be assigned to unrelated events, yet when a patient moves their neck or back, and shortly afterwards suffers neurological deterioration, we automatically assume that one caused the other. This is called “temporal association,” and while we can’t help but make the connection, it’s wrong as often as it’s right. (See the unfortunate coincidence of “vaccines caused my child’s autism.”)

Other than the cynical explanations of “this association never occurs” (probably wrong) or “it’s purely coincidence” (possible) there are two more sophisticated models worth considering:

  1. The Unmasked Inevitability: An injury exists that would eventually have progressed to a worse neurological status (hours, days, or weeks later). However, the trauma of a movement event induces that deficit to present earlier. The long-term outcome is the same, but the deterioration is now temporally linked with the movement.
  2. The Hidden Aftereffect: Early, unstabilized movement has no immediate effect, but the added insult to the cord promotes edema and other sequelae in the hours/days/weeks that follow. The end result is a poorer long-term outcome that could have been improved by limiting early spinal movement, yet with no obvious association between the two.

Both of these are extremely plausible pathways that we’ve proven to exist in many other diseases. Neither requires the presence of any boogeyman. And since both are completely unrelated to any naive temporal association, either one could only be detected using controlled, outcome-based studies, not this sort of childish anecdote-mongering.


The “forget it, I’m so done” model

Long spine boards may already be on their way out.

EMS services and hospitals around the country are beginning to get aboard the bandwagon of “ditch the backboard in most cases (but keep the collar).” This is very nice. But it’s interesting to examine why it’s happening.

There is no evidence for the benefit of either collars or boards. Any physiological rationale applies equally to both. (Yes, unstable C-spine injuries are somewhat more common than injuries at lower levels, but not so much as to make a difference here.) So why get rid of one but not the other?

It’s because the harms of boards are considered to be greater. There is more evidence that boards cause pain, stasis ulcers, respiratory compromise, and other negatives. However, none of these are major harms, nor are they terribly well demonstrated (most being shown only in small, unreplicated studies where a handful of volunteers were strapped to boards for a few hours). In other words, not exactly a knock-down argument.

If you believe that either device prevents serious morbidity, then these minor risks would not bother you. The only way that the side effects of backboards can be the deciding factor is this: you don’t really think there’s any benefit at all. Some harm + no benefit = out they go.

But remember that on any analysis, the benefits of boards vs. collars are equal zeroes. So once again… why keep one and ditch the other?

The true explanation of the backboard exodus seems to be that everybody finally threw up their hands and said collectively, “I’ve had it with these stupid things.” There was no landmark study or historical turning point. We just saw the writing on the wall.

Since they’re of a kind, the same thing might eventually happen to collars.

Do I think this would be a great idea? No. Because as we’ve discussed in this post, even if we exorcise the boogeyman from our thinking, that doesn’t mean there can’t be any benefit from these devices. It just means the possible benefit becomes more boring and less dramatic, and can now be studied, quantified, and weighed against other factors, rather than being an unassailable matter of dogma. And rather than burning our boards and collars, it means we’re free to recruit them in flexible and useful ways (such as using boards to move patients when it’s the most convenient method, or using collars to stabilize the necks of intubated patients when it’s helpful), rather than invoking them ritualistically.


So what now?

I hope these remarks shine a little light on some possible ways forward. I think many people feel that, if we drop the current model of early spinal care, we’re left with emptiness and nihilism. But really, the current model is based upon a fairytale: if we use our [talisman], we’ll keep away the [boogeyman]. Fairytale-based thinking prevents better understanding, because you can’t study a fairytale. Once we banish that, the entire disease opens up to the kind of rational approach that can stand alongside the rest of our armamentarium, and becomes amenable to the sort of boring explication offered by clinical research.

This is good. Do not fear it.

A Saga of Spurious Spines

Journal cover

There’s a story we’ve all been told. It goes like this:

A person suffers a traumatic injury, usually a minor one, like bumping their head or crunching their fender in traffic. Afterwards, they appear fine, without deficits or any great pain. Ambulance and hospital personnel are unimpressed. But all of a sudden, our seemingly-well patient makes some slight movement — maybe he turns his head — and instantly collapses to the floor, unable to move. He is paralyzed forever, and it’s all because of the unstable spinal injury that you missed.

You heard this cautionary fable in EMT or paramedic class. They tell it in medical school, in the emergency department, and on the trauma wards. It goes back decades. And it makes sense, right? Even a layperson would agree that if the structure of the spine is damaged, the cord it protects will become vulnerable, just like how you’re not supposed to poke the soft spot on a baby’s head.

In fear of this event, we go to great lengths to prevent it. We wrap collars around our patients’ necks, we tie them onto boards, we strap and tape and secure. If their spine can’t protect the cord, by golly we’ll protect it instead, at least until somebody definitively proves that there’s no injury. Which there usually isn’t. But still.

Here’s the trouble: practically nobody has actually seen this phenomenon of mechanical instability occur. For real; the next time somebody mentions it, ask if it’s happened to them. No, they’ll say; but my partner’s cousin’s babysitter saw it a few years back. And if you bother to track that person down, invariably you find that the case either never occurred or has become terribly dramatized through the telling. Steve Whitehead calls it the “Sasquatch event.”

So does this happen at all? After all, many things in medicine that make sense aren’t real. Indeed, doubt has grown lately as to whether our spinal immobilization precautions are effective, and we’ve become more aware of the harms associated with them; as a result, backboards have become increasingly vilified in recent years, and “selective immobilization” algorithms have been accepted in some areas. But there’s been less attention to the question of whether the disease itself is real or a myth, and I wanted to know.

So we went and looked. With the help of four folks smarter than me — Domenic Corey, NREMT-P; James Oswald, B.Emerg Health (Paramedic); Derek Sifford, FP-C; and Brooks Walsh, MD, NREMT-P — we canvassed the literature as far back as possible to dig up any actual, confirmed, peer-reviewed reports of this event. And we just published our findings in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine. Check it out. (And also check out the accompanying editorial by spine connoisseur Mark Hauswald, who you know from “that Malaysia study.”)

I won’t spoil the results, but let me put it this way:

  1. Despite looking across 50+ years, we found few examples.
  2. Most of them weren’t very impressive.
  3. Even fewer occurred in the EMS setting, and none of those were the classic, sudden event you’ve heard about.

So the next time your buddy mentions this unicorn, tell him you don’t doubt him, but that he should write it up for the journals — because it’ll be the first one, and that’s publishable.

This has been an exciting project for another reason. From start to finish, this paper was the child of two parents: the FOAM and EMS communities. Of my four co-authors, I knew three of them exclusively through the web, and have only met two, yet we share interests and passions enough to collaborate on a project that took us over a year. Moreover, every one of us is either an EMT or paramedic, most of us still working actively in the field (although in a few cases we’ve accumulated some other titles too). In fact, had this reached print a few months sooner, the fanciest initials of the lead author would be EMT-B, and that should tickle you.

So never let it be said that the nonsense in this profession is invincible, or that we can’t be the ones to exorcise it. We can fix our own problems, and if we spent more of our energy on moving forward rather than complaining, it just might happen sooner than you think.

New Digs and Old Friends

The short story is this: within the next few weeks, this site will be moving to the First Arriving blogger network. Hopefully, this process will be relatively seamless and invisible, and you won’t notice anything change. There may be a brief downtime.

The longer version is this: the EMS Blogs network, where we formerly made our home, is shutting its doors. Dave Konig, the network founder and administrator, has made the decision to close up the existing host and relocate the constituent blogs. He can explain better than I can, but things have been a little rocky recently, and astute readers will probably still notice some intermittent outages and broken corners of this site. Hopefully this will all be repaired, or at least repairable, after the move.

The sentimental version is this: the fact that Dave is no longer able to dedicate an unreasonable amount of his free time to serving us authors is not a personal failing on his part. Actually, it’s the opposite. It just highlights how much he’s done for us over the years.

I’ve remarked upon this before, but I believe it’s the folks like Dave in the world who deserve whatever attention we can point their way. They will never ask for it, and if you let them, they’ll remain an invisible part of the backdrop. Yet here are the facts: you would not be reading this blog, nor any of its independent content, nor its sister site Lit Whisperers, if it weren’t for many, many hours of work by Dave. We are not paying him, and he has never made any efforts to monetize the network or profit from us in any significant way. Our names run in the banners, not his. He doesn’t even get a thank you, because mostly we forget he exists.

So now that we’re parting ways, I hope we can all take a moment to remember his efforts.

Dave has done a huge service for the EMS blogging and FOAM community; I am grateful; and you should be too.

The First EMS What-if-We’re-Wrong-a-Thon



The EMS world is full of people with opinions.

This is a contentious business, and most days, it’s hard to kick a rock without hitting two paramedics having an argument. Usually, if you listen in, you’ll realize it’s one of the golden oldies, some debate older than Johnny and Roy — fire-based vs. private ambulances, ALS- vs. BLS-dominant systems, epinephrine in cardiac arrest, the role of spinal immobilization, and so on. These are topics with two opposing camps and very little room in the middle. (Nothing’s more odious than a fence-sitter.)

The thing is, if you step back and look at most of these debates, you have to admit that there are some massively intelligent, rational, well-educated people in both camps. It’s not The Smart People on one side and A Bunch of Loonies on the other. That wouldn’t really be a controversy, would it? We’d just ignore the loonies and move on. These issues only persist because there are legitimate arguments both Yea and Nay.

But you wouldn’t think that if you waded into the trenches and took your own stand. Although you might start out “seeing both sides,” by the time you’ve done your fifteenth blog post, your tenth column, your third published review, or your 100th lecture, all hammering the same bullet-points… well, after a while, you start wondering just how any nincompoop could possibly disagree with you. You’ve been dismissing the opposition’s arguments for so long that you can no longer give them any serious consideration.

Here’s an example: I am personally very skeptical about the value of emergency department thrombolysis for ischemic stroke. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced that it’s a bad idea, but I am fairly convinced that the evidence in its favor is poor, and I believe this with sufficient ardor that I start to get a throbbing headache whenever someone advocates too loudly for tPA. On a bad day, I’ll admit that I occasionally want to throw up my hands and say, “What are these morons thinking?”

Well, these morons are hundreds of exceptionally knowledgable researchers and physicians, and what they’re thinking is that they have a slightly different perspective on the data. They are actually not stupid or insane. And that’s the key here. Maybe I’m right, maybe they’re right. But we’re both wrong if we think the debate is over, and no rational person could disagree with us. Equipoise remains; reasonable people can go either way.

The debate rages on. We’ve just picked a side.

And so, while we may spend 99% of our time waving our preferred banners, it behooves us to occasionally take pause and remember that the other side is not composed of morons, and their points have some validity. It’s good to reflect upon why, even though we’re so smart, other smart people still disagree with us. And to truly weigh and consider those reasons as viable, not just as straw-men to be refuted.

That’s why today, we’re holding…


The First Great EMS What-if-We’re-Wrong-a-Thon

The what?

Today, six EMS writers, bloggers, and pundits have agreed to take one of their pet issues… one of the topics they argue, espouse, teach, and defend… and try to prove the other side.

If they believe that volunteer EMS is a tool of the devil, they’ve written an earnest screed arguing why volunteers are an essential feature of modern prehospital care. If they’ve based their career on railing against unnecessary use of helicopter transportation, they’ve done their best to defend air ambulances and prove their worth.

What’s the point of this exercise?

In part, it’s for the same reason that the Catholic Church appoints “devil’s advocates,” why debate teams are expected to be equally convincing from both “pro” or “con” positions, and why computer security outfits hire “penetration testers” to try to attack their own networks. Making a serious effort to destroy your own beliefs is the best way to strengthen them. You can’t do this from within your own fortress of opinions; inside there, it’s one big echo chamber without any perspective. You need to step outside your skin, pretend you haven’t spent ten years singing the same tune, and hold a Bizarro day in order to realize what you’ve been missing.

But that’s not the most important reason for this. The most important reason is humility.

We all think we’re right about what we believe. That’s why we believe it. And that’s fine.

Yet if we cross the line into thinking we cannot possibly be wrong, we’re no longer engaging in rational debate. We’re just shouting, shouting, shouting our personal dogma. If the answer to the question, “What could convince you to change your mind?” is nothing!, that’s called religion, not reason.

Only an idiot is always right. So we asked some prominent figures from the EMS world to take a day and show us how they’re willing to be wrong.

Participating posts are linked below. Go flip through them, and applaud the authors for the courage it takes to hammer upon your own ramparts. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to take a deep breath and acknowledge that you could be wrong too.



Michael Morse (Rescuing Providence) — Strong opponent of civilian Narcan (naloxone) distribution programs. He argues here why they actually might be a good idea.

Jeff Poland — Advocate of endotracheal intubation is the gold standard of airway management. He argues why we should be using supra-glottic airways as our first line intervention instead. (Guest hosted courtesy of Christopher Watford at My Variables Only Have 6 Letters.) He’s not to be confused with…

Ben Dowdy — … who argues why we should be abandoning prehospital endotracheal intubation altogether. (Guest hosted courtesy of Brooks Walsh at Mill Hill Ave Command.)

Greg Friese (EMS1) — Passionate proponent of non-traditional models of education. He argues why we should “unflip the classroom” and bring back standard lecture-based instruction for EMS training.

Vince DiGiulio (EMS 12-Lead) — Long-time believer in STEMI activation based on field ECG interpretation by well-trained paramedics. He argues why they should be transmitting their strips for physician interpretation instead.

Amy Eisenhauer (The EMS Siren) — Usually an advocate for professionalism among EMS providers; she makes a case here that sometimes, professionalism can have its downsides.

Those who Save Lives: Kevin Briggs

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has numerous claims to fame. Once the longest suspension bridge in the world, and still probably the most iconic, it’s a central feature of the SF Bay Area — my own home.

Less admirable is the fact that it remains among the most popular bridges in the nation for suicidal people to jump from. In fact, it’s one of the most “utilized” suicide spots in the entire world, with over 1,600 jumps made so far, most of them fatal. (Exact numbers are hard to come by for a good reason: bridge administrators and media outlets stopped keeping an official tally when they realized it was incentivizing people to ring in big milestones with their own attempts — lucky number 1,000 and so forth.) Someone still tries to jump about once every two weeks, which sounds insane, but is true.

Sergeant Kevin Briggs was a California Highway Patrol officer who spent a large part of his career patrolling that same bridge, which led to an interesting twist on his job description: suicide prevention. See, often times he was the one to notice a pedestrian who looked like they were considering jumping, or were even in the process of climbing over the rail. Sometimes he’d be called in by others who saw it first. Jumpers tended to stand on the “chord,” a ledge of piping just beyond the safety rail and the last solid ground before open air. Kevin would talk to them there, and try to convince them it was a bad idea.

It wasn’t something he had any training to do, at least not at first, or experience with, although he picked that up quickly. He had suicide in his family — as many of us do, since it’s incredibly common — but otherwise, he fell into the role the way many of us fall into our callings. Eventually, he made it his niche, leading a trained team of interveners.

Over the years, he spoke to hundreds of jumpers. At first, he’d approach benignly — “How are you feeling today?” and “What’s your plan for tomorrow?” For those without plans, he’d help them make some, because people with a plan tended to stick around to fulfill it.

Later, he became more direct, asking up front whether they’d come to hurt themselves. Or the simple question: “Others in similar circumstances have thought about ending their life. Have you had these thoughts?”

Either way, the encounters tended to unfold similarly. And as a rule, they went well. Of the countless desperate people he met, only two ended up jumping once he’d managed to make contact.

The jumpers met the pattern recognized by psychiatry as comprising the depressed and suicidal. They exhibited hopelessness — the outlook that things are terrible and will never get better. Most of us can ride out terrible storms, but if there’s no prospect of the storm ever ending, why bother? (“What do you do,” asked one, “when hope isn’t there?”) Then helplessness — the belief that there’s no remedy, solution, decision, medicine, or lifeline that can make a difference. People withdraw socially and lose interest in things they once enjoyed. They retreat from the world. They show up at the bridge because there’s no reason to be anywhere different.

Inexplicably, we in EMS seem to have developed the belief that most suicidal patients are “crazy” — as in psychotic — or dangerous — as in homicidal. As a rule, neither is true. These people aren’t out to hurt anybody. (One of the “ones who got away” politely shook Briggs’s hand and apologized before jumping.) They just want to escape the pain. With alcohol, with drugs, with sleep, with death.

How did Kevin Briggs have so much success? It’s a question that gets more perplexing the more you consider it. By definition, these are people who have lost all hope, exhausted all options, discarded alternatives until they’re ready to embrace the most permanent solution possible. And yet, a total stranger was able to approach them at their final moments and convince them to see things differently. How?

Through no secret system. He didn’t argue, cajole, or debate them. Nor did he tell anybody he knew how they felt or blame them for their actions. Mostly he listened to understand. Used their name to keep them anchored to reality. Occasionally, he’d share personal stories, things nobody else knew, as if bestowing them upon someone made them responsible for his secrets. In the end, merely being there seemed to make the difference.

Many interventions were successful within 10 minutes. Some lasted many hours. The longer the conversation went on, the better his odds, Briggs would say. The human connection grew stronger and stronger. People ready to jump away from nothing would reconsider, because now they were leaving something behind. It’s impolite to leave a conversation. It’s wrong to fail when someone cares about your success. Kevin had made it clear that he cared if they died, and they didn’t want to let Kevin down.

The most important secret of all is that this medicine wasn’t temporary. Another common truism in EMS is that preventing suicide is a Sisyphean task, because if someone wants to take their life, eventually they’ll succeed no matter how many times we slap the gun from their hand. Surely if they don’t jump here, they’ll just jump from the next bridge instead. But that’s not what the facts show. 94% of the ones who reconsidered jumping never tried again, instead living out long and fruitful lives. And the ones who jumped and survived nearly all described the same thought: the moment they stepped from the bridge, they regretted what they’d done. Despite what they’d thought, they didn’t really want to die. “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped,” reported one.

Much like reperfusing the STEMI, stabilizing the CHF exacerbation, or patching up the gunshot wound, this business was one of pulling people back from a preventable brink — people with the real potential to eventually leave it behind them.

As one mother wrote Briggs: “Thanks so much for standing up for those who may be only temporarily too weak to stand for themselves.” That sounds like our job, doesn’t it?

Sgt. Kevin Briggs recently retired from the CHP to continue pursuing suicide activism. And last year, work was finally approved on an anti-jumping safety net to be built beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe soon his brand of heroism won’t be necessary there. But it’ll be needed somewhere. Others are doing their part. Shouldn’t we do ours?

(By the way, the Code Green Campaign, which is trying to make a dent in the number of suicides among EMS providers, has so far been forced to announce a new one every 3.5 days this year. Fire safety isn’t doing any better. But heck, suicide’s not our problem, right?)

Sources and more reading:

Read about more lifesavers at Those who Save Lives: The Royal Humane Society and Those who Save Lives: Harry Watts