In a closed claims study, most patients experiencing cervical spinal cord injury had stable cervical spines. This raises two questions. First, in the presence of an intact (stable) cervical spine, are there tracheal intubation conditions in which cervical intervertebral motions exceed physiologically normal maximum values? Second, with an intact spine, are there tracheal intubation conditions in which potentially injurious cervical cord strains can occur?


This study utilized a computational model of the cervical spine and cord to predict intervertebral motions (rotation, translation) and cord strains (stretch, compression). Routine (Macintosh) intubation force conditions were defined by a specific application location (mid-C3 vertebral body), magnitude (48.8 N), and direction (70 degrees). A total of 48 intubation conditions were modeled: all combinations of 4 force locations (cephalad and caudad of routine), 4 magnitudes (50 to 200% of routine), and 3 directions (50, 70, and 90 degrees). Modeled maximum intervertebral motions were compared to motions reported in previous clinical studies of the range of voluntary cervical motion. Modeled peak cord strains were compared to potential strain injury thresholds.


Modeled maximum intervertebral motions occurred with maximum force magnitude (97.6 N) and did not differ from physiologically normal maximum motion values. Peak tensile cord strains (stretch) did not exceed the potential injury threshold (0.14) in any of the 48 force conditions. Peak compressive strains exceeded the potential injury threshold (–0.20) in 3 of 48 conditions, all with maximum force magnitude applied in a nonroutine location.


With an intact cervical spine, even with application of twice the routine value of force magnitude, intervertebral motions during intubation did not exceed physiologically normal maximum values. However, under nonroutine high-force conditions, compressive strains exceeded potentially injurious values. In patients whose cords have less than normal tolerance to acute strain, compressive strains occurring with routine intubation forces may reach potentially injurious values.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • Cervical spinal cord injury can occur due to airway manipulation including tracheal intubation even in the presence of an intact cervical spine
  • During intubation with an intact cervical spine, it is unknown whether cervical spine motion can exceed the range of voluntary motion and cause cord injury due to stretch or compression (strain) or whether injurious cord strain can occur without pathologic motion
What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • Based on simulation of an adult cervical spine, pathologic motion does not occur even with intubation force up to twice that commonly encountered during routine tracheal intubation
  • However, in patients who have increased susceptibility to strain-related cord injury, potentially injurious cord strain may occur during routine tracheal intubation conditions