Background: The concept of distracting pain (DP) is a controversial subjective confounder that often impedes the efficient and timely clearance of the cervical spine (C-spine). This study attempted to define DP more objectively and assess its true potential to mask the presence of C-spine injury. It also evaluated reliability and safety of clinical judgment in discounting the significance of pain peripheral to the neck (PP). Methods: This prospective study included patients with a Glasgow Coma Score ≥14 at a level I trauma center presenting in a C-spine collar. Demographics, mechanism of injury, severity and location of all pain, and C-spine imaging data were obtained. Patient and examiner perception of DP were ascertained using the Verbal Numerical Rating Scale (VNRS) along with the examiner's clinical opinion as to the presence of a fracture. Results: A total of 160 patients were studied: 65 % male, mean age 39 years, and 44 % presenting after a motor vehicle crash. In all, 16 % complained of neck pain (NP) and 82 % of PP. There were 134 patients without NP, 110 of whom (82 %) had PP. The mean VNRS in patients with no NP was 4.2; in patients with NP it was 4.8. When examined, 14 patients without NP exhibited posterior cervical tenderness, one of whom had a fracture (7 %). Of the patients with PP, 10 % stated it was DP. The mean VNRS described as DP by all patients was 7.5 but by clinician 6.5. VNRS described as not DP was 4.8 for both patients and clinicians. Overall, 8 of the 160 patients (5 %) had confirmed C-spine injuries. Regardless of NP or PP and its potentially distracting nature, clinicians believed no fracture was present in 95 % of all cases. Clinical impression was 98 % accurate. For patients with NP, clinical impression had a 91 % negative predictive value (NPV) and a 100 % a positive predictive value (PPV). In those without NP, the NPV was 99 % and the PPV 25 %. Conclusions: The concept of DP is subjective and unreliable as a method to mitigate missed C-spine injuries. If it is to be considered for use, DP should be defined as VNRS ≥5. Reliance on clinical impressions regardless of the presence or absence of NP or PP, distracting or otherwise, is accurate and safe.
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