The association of occipitocervical dissociation and death as a result of blunt trauma

Ran Lador, Peleg J. Ben-Galim, Bradley K. Weiner, John A. Hipp

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background context: Despite multiple reports of survivability, dissociative occipitocervical injury (OCI) is generally accepted to be fatal in most cases. The actual number of trauma victims where OCI may have made the difference between life and death is unknown because multiple studies have shown that these injuries can be missed with current diagnostic methods. An improved understanding of the relative importance of OCI in blunt trauma mortality may help to refine protocols for the assessment and treatment of patients who arrive alive to the emergency room after severe blunt trauma. One way to improve our understanding is to document the relative frequency OCI relative to brain, liver, aorta, and spleen injuries in blunt trauma fatalities. Purpose: In this study, we aimed to glean a more accurate estimate of the absolute and relative incidence of OCI after death from blunt trauma via a systematic review of data reported in the forensic literature. Study design: Systematic literature review. Methods: A systematic literature search and review were undertaken. The search aimed to answer three primary questions: What is the true incidence of cervical spine injuries in blunt trauma fatalities? What is the incidence of dissociative OCIs specifically? and What is the incidence of these injuries relative to other common injuries associated with blunt trauma fatalities (central nervous system, spleen, liver, etc)? For that, two search protocols were used and included postmortem studies of blunt trauma mechanism in adult population. Results: The mean reported incidence of cervical spine injuries was 49.7% in blunt trauma fatalities. Dissociative OCIs were found to have a mean incidence of 18.1%. The relative frequencies of injuries were 49.7% for cervical spine, 41.8% for central nervous system, 20.8% for liver, 11.2% for spleen, and 10.8% for aorta. Conclusions: In this systematic literature review, cervical spine injuries were found to be the most commonly reported finding associated with blunt trauma fatalities, occurring in nearly 50% of cases with occipitocervical dissociation accounting for nearly 20%. Older pathologic studies suggested a lesser overall and relative frequency and may have underestimated their incidence. Typically, these blunt cervical spine injuries were much more commonly found to disrupt the soft tissue stabilizing restraints (ligaments, facet capsules, etc) as opposed to causing bony fractures and, accordingly, were often not detected on plain radiographs. It is likely that the frequency of this injury is underestimated in patients surviving severe blunt trauma, placing them at risk for death from an occult source in the postinjury period. Additional research is needed to determine if improved methods to diagnose OCI and improved patient management protocols to protect against secondary injuries might reduce mortality in blunt trauma victims.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1128-1132
Number of pages5
JournalSpine Journal
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2010


  • Cervical spine
  • Dissociation
  • Occiput
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Surgery


Dive into the research topics of 'The association of occipitocervical dissociation and death as a result of blunt trauma'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this