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.

What the Heck is a General Impression?

I’m tired of all the mumbo-jumbo.

Here’s my beef. Every medical provider, particularly those who work in the acute setting (such as prehospital medicine, critical care, or the emergency department), talks about a concept familiar to us all: the overall, gut sense of how ill a patient appears. In EMS training this is often described as the “general impression,” the “view from the door,” “big sick vs. little sick,” or other euphemisms. It’s your basic opinion of whether a patient is doing okay or not, and it’s formed within the first moments of contact.

Whatever you call it, it’s important. In fact, this one factor is often what really drives your management decisions. If a patient looks truly sick, it may not matter what the vital signs show or how the history sounds; they’re getting zipped over to the hospital with bells on. Conversely, if they look really well, it’s hard to get excited even if they complain of “12 out of 10 pain” and their pulse is 100.

Here’s the rub: everybody acts like this quality is completely impossible to describe. If you tell me the patient “looked sick” and I ask what you mean, you’ll probably wave your hands and reply that it’s ineffable; that you “had to be there”; that you know it when you see it, but that it can’t be quantified and can’t be analyzed.

If true, that would mean it can’t be taught, either. New providers would have to learn to recognize this mystical patient presentation by dint of long, hard-earned experience.

And perhaps this is true. Certainly there are other aspects of patient evaluation and management that actually are too complex to reduce to simplicities. Indeed, one of the central skills of medicine, and one that humans are uniquely equipped to perform (hence the last one that computers will take from us), is our ability to extract a diagnosis from a large number of variables by recognizing subtle patterns.

But I doubt that’s true here. Why? Because you form your general impression within the first moments you meet a patient. There just aren’t very many factors that can come into play, because you haven’t obtained much information yet. The view from the door isn’t going to include ECG findings or subtleties of the OPQRST.

So I have a theory, and here it is. The entire mythical gestalt of your general impression actually involves only three things: the patient’s behavior, their breathing, and the appearance of their skin.


The first thing you notice when you meet a person is their behavior. This mostly means two things: their mental status and their level of distress.

A sick patient may be unconscious, or visibly lethargic; healthy people are awake and alert, because the brain is one of the last things the body allows to shut down. They’re also not obviously loopy, such as profoundly confused or combative, unless they have a chronic condition such as dementia.

And if sick people aren’t so sick they can’t complain at all, then their complaints reflect their acuity. They scream, they moan, they are visibly distressed by pain or fear. They say things like they’re dying or can’t breathe or can’t see or can’t move.

Some interpretation is needed here, because appropriate behavior can depend on the circumstances. Malingerers may say they can’t breathe when they clearly can. Panic attacks may present with greater distress than the physiology warrants. A child is most reassuring when grabbing at your stethoscope and stealing your gauze. And an infant may be normal when he cries vigorously and sick when he sits in silence. But it all comes down to how the patient is behaving.


The patient’s breathing can be evaluated from across a parking lot. You can’t auscultate or measure their oxygen saturation, but you can get a general idea.

Are they breathing at all? Are they laboring, wheezing, gasping agonally, gurgling through pulmonary edema? Are they chatting easily with the firefighters, or is sucking down air the sole focus of their attention?


Skin appearance is an idiot-proof and instantly recognizable finding.

The most common sick skins involve pallor and diaphoresis. Shocky or otherwise sympathetically-charged patients are starkly white and sweating like they’re in a sauna. It’s one of the most characteristic appearances of acute illness.

Cyanosis is next up. “Shortness of breath” in a patient who’s pink, warm, and dry is one thing, but it’s quite another when they’re turning blue.

Less common findings include the red-hot skin of fever, the yellow skin of severe jaundice, the dry skin of dehydration, and the dependent lividity of the very dead.

That’s all, folks

When you talk about a patient who looks sick, or “doesn’t feel right,” or has some other nebulous problem like being “toxic,” you’re not tapping into some vast, indescribable vault of clinical judgment. All you’re doing is using shorthand that refers to the patient’s behavior, breathing, and skin. (Notice how these factors are emphasized in our initial assessment.)

A gut belief that a patient has a big problem after a full work-up (including an H&P and diagnostics) is a different phenomenon, and suggests that your intuitive side is recognizing a larger pattern that your conscious self hasn’t yet been able to label. But that’s a distinct process from the instantaneous triage you perform when you first walk into a room.

There may be exceptional cases where something different sets off your alarm bells. But I bet most of the time, it can still be linked back to one of these three categories. (An example might be the frequent flier, well-known to you, who is usually stoic but today seems worried and wants transport. That’s a discrepancy in their behavior, ain’t it?)

Don’t believe me? Just think of how you tell the stories of your sick patients. I’ll bet you say things like, “I walk in, and he’s bent over gasping; his skin is completely soaked and looks whiter than copier paper.” Those are the factors that we recognize as important, and that’s why they’re so vividly evocative. They’re the colors we use to paint the picture of badness.

I may raise some ire by dismissing the voodoo surrounding the clinical gestalt, but here’s my challenge: if you believe there’s more behind your general impression of “sick or not sick,” then reply in the comments and tell me what it is. Maybe I’m missing or forgetting something. Maybe I’m doing it wrong and you’re doing it right. But if you can’t point to what’s missing, then I’m betting there’s nothing more to it after all.

The Long-term Care Ombudsman: Advocates on Call

Although we like to talk around here about exciting topics like shock and airway management, the reality is that for many EMS providers — particularly at the BLS level — a large part of this job isn’t stabilizing emergencies. It’s routine work like dialysis trips and stable transfers from nursing facilities. Some folks find this stuff dull, and it can be dull, but the best way to make it interesting is to approach it just like the exciting stuff and try to be excellent at both aspects of the job.

How can you excel at bringing Mr. Smith to his third doctor’s appointment this week? You can learn to be a really good patient advocate on his behalf, something that almost all residents of long-term care facilities need. We’re well-positioned to fill this role because we have a one-on-one relationship with our patients. Unfortunately, we often lack the know-how and leverage to resolve most of their problems.

Our feature in the August 2014 issue of EMS World talks about how to use the ubiquitous Long-Term Care Ombudsman program to help. It’s easy, it works, and even if you didn’t know about it, there’s one available in your area. Give it a read and think about bringing it to bear the next time the guy on your stretcher has something to say!

Murder by Checklist

Reader Steve Carroll passed along this recent case report from the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

It’s behind a paywall, so let’s summarize.


What happened

A young adult male was shot three times — right lower quadrant, left flank, and proximal right thigh. Both internal and external bleeding were severe. A physician bystander* tried to control it with direct pressure, to no avail.

With two hands and a lot of force, however (he weighed over 200 pounds), he was able to hold continuous, direct pressure to the upper abdomen, tamponading the aorta proximal to all three wounds.


Manual aortic pressure


Bleeding was arrested and the patient regained consciousness as long as compression was held. The bystander tried to pass the job off to another, smaller person, who was unable to provide adequate pressure.

When the scene was secured and paramedics arrived, they took over the task of aortic compression. But every time they interrupted pressure to move him to the stretcher or into the ambulance, the patient lost consciousness again. Finally en route, “it was abandoned to obtain vital signs, intravenous access, and a cervical collar.”

The result?

Within minutes, the patient again bled externally and became unresponsive. Four minutes into the 9-minute transfer, he had a pulseless electrical activity cardiac arrest, presumed a result of severe hypovolemia. Advanced cardiac life support resuscitation was initiated and continued for the remaining 5-minute transfer to the ED.

The patient did not survive.


When the cookbook goes bad

The idea of aortic compression is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s the most important lesson to this story.

Much has been said about the drawbacks of rigidly prescriptive protocol-based practice in EMS. But one could argue that our standard teachings allow for you to defer interventions like IV access if you’re caught up preventing hemorrhage. Like they say, sometimes you never get past the ABCs.

The problem here is not necessarily the protocols or the training. It’s the culture. And it’s not just us, because you see similar behavior in the hospital and in other domains.

It’s the idea that certain things just need to be done, regardless of their appropriateness for the patient. It’s the idea that certain patients come with a checklist of actions that need to be dealt with before you arrive at the ED. Doesn’t matter when. Doesn’t matter if they matter.

It’s this reasoning: “If I deliver a trauma patient without a collar, vital signs, and two large-bore IVs, the ER is going to tear me a new one.”

In other words, if you don’t get through the checklist, that’s your fault. But if the patient dies, that’s nobody’s fault.

From the outside, this doesn’t make much sense, because it has nothing to do with the patient’s pathology and what might help them. It has everything to do with the relationship between the paramedic and the ER, or the paramedic and the CQI staff, or the paramedic and the regional medical direction.

Because we work alone out there, without anybody directly overseeing our practice, the only time our actions are judged is when we drop off the patient. Which has led many of us to prioritize the appearance of “the package.” Not the care we deliver on scene or en route. Just the way things look when we arrive.

That’s why crews have idled in ED ambulance bays trying over and over to “get the tube” before unloading. That’s why we’ve had patients walk to the ambulance, climb inside, and sit down, only to be strapped down to a board.

And that’s why we’ve let people bleed to death while we record their blood pressure and needle a vein.

It’s okay to do our ritual checklist-driven dance for the routine patients, because that’s what checklists are for; all the little things that seem like a good idea when there’s time and resources to achieve them. But there’s something deeply wrong when you turn away from something critical — something lifesaving — something that actually helps — in order to achieve some bullshit that doesn’t matter one bit.

If you stop tamponading a wound to place a cervical collar, that cervical collar killed the patient. If you stop chest compressions to intubate, that tube killed the patient. If you delay transport in penetrating trauma to find an IV, that IV killed the patient.

No, let’s be honest. If you do those things, you killed the patient.

Do what actually matters for the patient in front of you. Nobody will ever criticize you for it, and if they do, they are not someone whose criticism should bother you. The only thing that should bother you is killing people while you finish your checklist.


* Correction: the bystander who intervened was not a physician, but “MD” (Matthew Douma), the lead author, who is an RN. — Editor, 7/22/14