Atlanto-occipital subluxation/dislocation: a "survivable" injury in children

April 1999
American Surgeon;Apr1999, Vol. 65 Issue 4, p317
Academic Journal
journal article
Atlanto-occipital dislocation occurs more often in children due to the laxity of the ligamentous structures anchoring the occiput to the axial skeleton. The mechanism of action usually involves a sudden acceleration-deceleration force on the head of the child. The dislocation usually severs the spinal cord at the foramen magnum, resulting in acute respiratory arrest. We have managed four patients who sustained this injury and arrived at our trauma center with signs of life. Two patients were hemodynamically unstable, had positive diagnostic peritoneal lavage, and underwent splenectomy. Both patients had obvious separation of the occiput and C1 on lateral cervical spine films. Both remained very unstable and died soon after celiotomy. The other two patients were stabilized, and both met criteria for brain death; one family agreed to organ donation. A 5-year analysis revealed 57 pediatric deaths, with 10 patients sustaining atlanto-occipital dislocations (17.5%). Nine of 10 patients sustained other injuries, but in only 2 patients were the injuries immediately life-threatening. With continued improvement in emergency medical systems and pediatric trauma care, we can expect to see more pediatric patients with this injury arriving in trauma centers with signs of life. In our experience, 50 per cent of patients may meet organ donor criteria, and our incidence of this injury (17.5%) reveals atlanto-occipital dislocation as a major contributor to pediatric trauma mortality.


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