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.

Super Soakers: Building a BLS Irrigation Device

Preparation vs. Improvisation

Everything in its place

I have a new partner who called me obsessive once.

“Eh?” I asked.

“Everything has to be just so. When you come in you make sure the collars are organized and facing the same direction, you fold over the ends of the tape and stack it in a certain order, you make sure the handles on the bags are easy to grab…”

“I’m not obsessive… have you seen my car?”

“Well, you are here.”

And it’s true. When I show up in the morning, I do my damnedest to ensure that all of our equipment is as stocked, ready, and prepared as possible. I’m the guy who checks the integrity of the air-filled gaskets on the BVM masks, and considers two spare O2 tanks one and one none. If my blood pressure cuffs aren’t labeled, I label them, and I ensure my map book is turned to the correct page.

And all of that may sound funny, because everybody knows that one of the hallmarks of EMS is improvisation, the ability to adapt to unusual situations and “make do.” If you’re juking around at a chaotic scene and discover that you haven’t got any splints, or your stretcher strap is broken, or your patient is dangling over the side of a balcony and needs to be boarded, you see what you have and use your noodle and make it work. Not long ago I saw somebody apply pressure to a laceration on top of a patient’s head by tying a bandage to both stretcher rails and rubber-banding it over their skull like a bow-and-arrow. Why not?

We find a way. So why am I so anal about being prepared while we’re still standing on solid ground?

The fact is, in this job, things are going to go wrong. They just are. And you’re going to handle them the best you can. But if too many things go wrong, the situation may reach a breaking point — your capacity to “adapt and overcome” is not infinite.

Have you ever read a book or watched a show about a major disaster? Plane crashes, reactor meltdowns, bridge collapses. What they have in common is that numerous intelligent people usually foresaw the possibility of such an event, and so they designed systems and safeguards to prevent it from happening. When disaster happens nonetheless, it isn’t because one thing went wrong. It’s because five, six, twelve things went wrong. The backups to the backups to the backups failed. More problems occurred simultaneously than anybody expected..

In this job, too, the only time when feces hit fans is when problems accumulate. It’s not that the patient was sicker than you expected. Or that the stairs were rickety and covered in snow. Those are a nuisance. It goes from whoopsie to trainwreck when you didn’t bring your stairchair and your suction. Then when you go back, the chair falls open while you’re walking, and as you try to fold it you trip over your untied laces, and when you finally get inside you realize the suction canister is missing a cap and won’t hold pressure. And then once you get the patient extricated they’re already unconscious, but you can’t find any Yankauer tips in the truck, and by the time you do they’ve stopped breathing…

See? With this job, even at the best of times, the line between well-in-hand and circling-the-drain can be pretty slim, and once you’re on that slope it’s hard to recover. The only way to stay safely in control is to create a buffer, and that means doing everything you can to prepare yourself when you have the chance, because you won’t always have a chance. If you don’t bother dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s before you enter the mix, then when things inevitably go wrong, the sum of those unhingings may be too much to handle.

Consider your emergency responses. It’s a safe bet that you’re going to drive past the address, or turn the wrong way, or get caught behind the world’s slowest schoolbus. Something is going to cause problems, whether it’s your dyslexic partner who confuses Gable Street with Bagel Street, or you forgetting the apartment number three times in a row. But that’s just a small delay. It won’t be a real problem unless you also stopped to pee before leaving the base, or forgot where your boots were, or had to spend five minutes backing out of where you parked. In that case, you already burned through your margin for error, and now when the unexpected (but inevitable) comes along, you’ve got no slack left.

In short, you can be the best in the world at rolling with the punches, and in this job, you ought to be. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also try to be prepared to the point of obsessiveness. One lays a foundation for the other, and when you habitually have both to work with, you can handle whatever comes your way; if you’ve only got one, you’ll be lucky to get through your shift.

Cuff Links and Hijinks

Any decent EMT can take the austere equipment he’s got and use it to craft all manner of weird and wonderful solutions for the challenges of prehospital medicine. Of course, doing this means understanding the tools you’ve got and all of their powers. Here are a few ideas for using the ubiquitous blood pressure cuff or sphygmomanometer. (We’ve mentioned many of these in passing before, but it’s nice to see them in living color.)


Calibrating the gauge

How to use a pair of pliers to zero the needle on a mis-calibrated dial.


Measuring airway pressure, tourniquets, and cushions

Three handy tricks: first, a method of repurposing common items to create a BVM that provides real-time measurement of the pressure created during positive-pressure ventilation (a very handy teaching tool). Second, using the BP cuff as a tourniquet. Third, using it as an air pillow to fill voids during spinal immobilization.


Do you have a trick for the blood pressure cuff we haven’t mentioned? Let’s hear it!