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Cobb Method or Harrison Posterior Tangent Method: Which to Choose for Lateral Cervical Radiographic Analysis

Harrison, Deed E., DC*; Harrison, Donald D., PhD, DC, MSE; Cailliet, Rene, MD; Troyanovich, Stephan J., DC; Janik, Tadeusz J., PhD,÷; Holland, Burt, PhD


Study Design. Thirty lateral cervical radiographs were digitized twice by three examiners to compare reliability of the Cobb and posterior tangent methods.

Objectives. To determine the reliability of the Cobb and Harrison posterior tangent methods and to compare and contrast these two methods.

Summary of Background Data. Cobb’s method is commonly used on both anteroposterior and lateral radiographs, whereas the posterior tangent method is not widely used.

Methods. A blind, repeated-measures design was used. Thirty lateral cervical radiographs were digitized twice by each of three examiners. To evaluate reliability of determining global and segmental alignment, vertebral bodies of C1–T1 were digitized. Angles created were two global two-line Cobb angles (C1–C7 and C2–C7), segmental Cobb angles from C2 to C7, and posterior tangents drawn at each posterior vertebral body margin. Cobb’s method and the posterior tangent method are compared and contrasted with these data.

Results. Of 34 intraclass and interclass correlation coefficients, 28 were in the high range (>0.7), and 6 were in the good range (0.6–0.7). The Cobb method at C1–C7 overestimated the cervical curvature (−54°) and, at C2–C7 it underestimated the cervical curve (−17°), whereas the posterior tangents were the slopes along the curve (−26° from C2 to C7). The inferior vertebral endplates and posterior body margins did not meet at 90° (C2: 105° ± 5.2°, C3: 99.7° ± 5.2°, C4: 99.9° ± 5.8°, C5: 96.1 ° ± 4.5°, C6: 97.0° ± 3.8°, C7: 95.4° ± 4.1°), which caused the segmental Cobb angles to underestimate lordosis at C2–C3, C4–C5, and C6–C7.

Conclusions. Although both methods are reliable with the majority of correlation coefficients in the high range (ICC > 0.7), from the literature, the posterior tangent method has a smaller standard error of measurement than four-line Cobb methods. Global Cobb angles compare only the ends of the cervical curve and cannot delineate what happens to the curve internally. Posterior tangents are the slopes along the curve and can provide an analysis of any buckled areas of the cervical curve. The posterior tangent method is part of an engineering analysis (first derivative) and more accurately depicts cervical curvature than the Cobb method.—

From *Private Practice Elko, Nevada; †Chiropractic Biophysics (CBP) Nonprofit, Harvest, Alabama; the ‡Department of Rehabilitative Medicine, University of Southern California, School of Medicine, Pacific Palisades, California; Private Practice, Normal, Illinois; ÷CACI, Huntsville, Alabama; and the ¶Department of Statistics, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Acknowledgment date: September 10, 1999.

Acceptance date: December 6, 1999.

Address reprint requests to

Deed E. Harrison

123 Second Street

Elko, NV 89801


Financial support was provided by CBP Nonprofit, Inc., Harvest, Alabama.

Device status category: 1.

Conflict of interest category: 15.

© 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.