Earlier in the week I posted a partial list of EMS myths that just seem to hang in there despite no evidence to support them. In fact, some of them hang in there despite evidence that they not only don’t help, but may cause harm. chiefjaybob was crushingly disappointed that I didn’t mention backboards. Since there was no disagreement among my friends, I didn’t feel the need to rehash the issue.
The problem is that outside my circle of friends, there is a lot of disagreement about this. A lot of paramedics have predicted The End Of The EMS World As We Know It if we stop using Middle Ages inspired devices to “help” our patients with potential spinal injuries.
Keep in mind my dicta that “It’s only help, if it helps”.
C spine immobilization on a long board doesn’t help. In fact, it
probably hurts. Correction, it hurts. Not only is it uncomfortable and painful, it can actually cause permanent harm to the patient.
I know that this has been a difficult few years for the doesn’t like change in EMS crowd, but the essence of EMS is to continuously improve patient care. Part of that is discarding that which is proven not to work.
First we cut way back on Oxygen delivery, restricting it to the few cases where we know it helps. We know that high levels of O2 can actually cause harm and reduce survival rates for some patients. Still, it took a long time to convince EMS agencies to adopt the new approach.
That was jarring enough, but now we are on the verge of destroying yet another staple of EMS treatment… spinal immobilization.
Here are what I call some Spinal Immobilization fun facts;
The entire practice of immobilizing patients to reduce the risk of permanent spinal cord injury (SCI) is based on a single paper published in 1966. That’s not a typo, that’s almost 50 years ago. That year a paper was published documenting twenty nine cases of delayed paralysis in trauma patients transported by ambulance. The fault was laid on the ambulance crews, but it was anecdotal. There was no rigorous scrutiny of the care delivered, there were probably no patient care reports to review, it was just anecdote. Which should not be confused with fact or science. Another term for anecdote is “war stories”. So a level of evidence no better than a bull shit session over some beers lead to a nationwide (and probably international) treatment that had to be rigorously followed.
Based on that paper, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) published an opinion that immobilization should be used for patients with signs and symptoms of spinal injury. Again, no evidence, just opinion.
So, from the mid 1970s, which was what we could term the “Modern era of EMS” forward that was the gold standard for treatment of suspected spinal injuries. Oh, bye the bye, no patient with a confirmed SCI has ever regained full neurological function. None. Nor is there any evidence that immobilization has prevented anyone from a SCI. None. As it turns out, the injury is caused at the moment of impact, even if the effect might be delayed. Energy against the spinal cord is what causes the injury.
Starting about 15 or so years ago some science slowly crept into the debate. Studies published in 1998, 1999, and then this year all demonstrated that putting a patient on a back board didn’t help. Not one bit. Nada, zilch. ixnay. Not only that, but even when done properly (when was the last time you padded voids?) immobilization still allowed significant (up to 4cm) of lateral movement.
Then the evidence that immobilization caused injury started to come out.
What kind of injury?
Respiratory distress. Older patients, patients with COPD and/or CHF, larger patients, all are at risk for suffering respiratory distress and failure from being laid supine on a backboard and then having straps tightened across their chests and abdomens. That’s real harm.
Pressure injuries/Decubiti. It takes about 20-30 minutes for patients placed on backboards to start developing skin injury from being placed on a hard board with straps… Elderly patients in particular, but even younger healthy patients can be affected.
Average time that patients spend on backboards in the Emergency Department before being cleared? Two hours.
That’s not to mention the aches and pains and possible nerve damage from being strapped down onto a hard board for extended time. A few years ago I suggested that every medical director in the country should be required to be immobilized on a back board in their home, driven to an emergency room, and then left to lie in a treatment room for about two hours before they were released. THAT would change protocols pretty quickly. Alas, it never happened, so it took a bit longer for this to change.
Need more convincing?
Patients with penetrating trauma had worse outcomes if they were immobilized. Yet, I know people who insist that all penetrating trauma above the level of the navel should be fully immobilized. I’d bet that there are EMS systems that still require that.
By the way, that includes patients with penetrating trauma to the head, including gun shot wounds. Actually, it’s even more significant with those patients as lying them flat and strapping them to a board increases there likelihood of death.
Intermediate devices, such as the KED or short backboard, increase movement, not decrease it. Patients who self extricate have less movement. No one has (yet) looked at rapid extrication, but my guess based on my experience (yes anecdote) is that movement is less than manipulating a patient into a KED or onto a short backboard, but probably a bit more than self extrication. So, all those nasty grams about letting patients get out of the car on their own and then sit on the stretcher are probably meaningless.
The new treatment recommendation is to put a Cervival Collar on the patient and then place them on the stretcher in a semi Fowlers position where they are comfortable. The patient will not only complain less about the transport, they are likely to have a better outcome.
One last head spinning bit of information. If for some reason you feel the need to use full immobilization, the backboard still is not indicated. It turns out that the scoop stretcher, long one of my favorite EMS implements, does as good a job immobilizing and is more comfortable (a relative term) than a backboard. Just make sure to keep the patient from directly contacting it on a cold day! The human shape just conforms to the shape of the scoop more readily than it does to a backboard.
Of course I expect it to be anywhere from 2-5 years before this becomes the accepted across the EMS world. One of the hardest things to do in EMS is to get people to abandon long cherished beliefs on what works. It took years go get medics to abandon the idea that Sodium Bicarb was beneficial in cardiac arrest despite the American Heart Association changing it’s guidelines.
Hopefully chiefjaybob is satisfied now. I strive to keep my reader base as happy as possible.
What about pediatric patients? Same risks and still no benefit.