Penetrating traumatic neck injury

Last revised by Henry Knipe on 25 Apr 2022

Penetrating traumatic neck injury can be a potentially devastating injury due to the high density of crucial anatomical structures within the neck. 

Young males are highly represented in patients with a traumatic neck injury. In one study, 11:1 ratio of males to females were identified in patients with penetrating neck injury 3.

The neck has traditionally been divided into three anatomic zones when describing penetrating neck trauma, which guides clinical management 2:

Injuries mostly (~80%) occur in zone 2. ~10% of injuries involve two zones 5

Assessment of neck injuries has been aided by the use of CT angiography. Types of injury include vascular injury, esophageal perforation, laryngeal trauma and neurological injury.

Treatment of neck injury depends on the severity of injury and the zones of the neck which are involved. Previously, zone 2 injuries penetrating the platysma were thought to require immediate surgical exploration. One current study suggests that thorough clinical examination can prevent unnecessary surgical exploration of zone 2 neck injuries. Clinical criteria which would indicate surgical intervention/exploration include:

  • exsanguinating hemorrhage
  • expanding hematoma
  • shock
  • airway compromise
  • massive subcutaneous hematoma

Zone 1 and 3 injuries are evaluated more selectively, particularly due to the difficulty in their surgical accessibility 4.

While endovascular techniques have seen increasing use in other traumatic vascular injuries, open surgical repair is considered the gold standard for most vascular neck trauma. One study suggests that patients with stable, intimal, high zone 3 carotid injuries and vertebral artery injuries can be repaired endovascularly. Otherwise, surgical exploration is the intervention of choice.

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: zones
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  • Case 1: zone 2
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  • Case 2: zone 1
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  • Case 3: zone 1/2
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  • Case 4: common carotid pseudoaneurysm
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  • Case 5: arrow injury in the neck
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