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Atlas Fractures: Diagnosis, Current Treatment Recommendations, and Implications for Elderly Patients

Smith, Richard M., MD*; Bhandutia, Amit K., MD; Jauregui, Julio J., MD; Shasti, Mark, MD; Ludwig, Steven C., MD

doi: 10.1097/BSD.0000000000000631

Fractures of the C1 vertebrae (atlas) are commonly the result of falls and other trauma, which cause hyperextension, or axial compression of the cervical spine. Although historically thought as a benign injury with lower neurological risks, current data suggests that this may not hold true for geriatric patients (aged 65 y and older) who may be predisposed to these fractures even after lower-energy trauma such as ground-level falls. Advancements in orthopedic trauma care has increased our diagnostic abilities to identify and manage patients with C1 fractures and other upper cervical spine trauma. However, there are no universal treatment guidelines based on level I trials. Current treatment ranges from nonoperative to operative management depending on fracture-pattern and integrity of the surrounding ligaments. Furthermore, in the elderly patients these fractures present a unique dilemma due to preexisting comorbidities and contraindications to various treatment modalities. C1 fractures warrant greater recognition to provide optimal treatment to patients and minimize the risk for developing complications. The goal of this review is to highlight the most updated treatment guidelines and to discuss the complications of both operative and nonoperative management of C1 fractures especially among the elderly patient population.

*Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA

Department of Orthopaedics, University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, MD

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Steven C. Ludwig, MD, Department of Orthopaedics, University of Maryland School of Medicine, 110S. PacaStreet, 6th Floor, Suite 300, Baltimore, MD 21201 (e-mail:

Received June 22, 2017

Accepted February 21, 2018

© 2018 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.