Degenerative cervical myelopathy: Cervical spondylotic myelopathy

Ross Hauser, MD

Cervical spondylotic myelopathy is a condition where wear and tear and age weaken the structure of the cervical spine and cause compression to the spinal cord. The diagnosis is given after symptoms consistent with spinal cord compression are apparent.

Article outline:

Part 1: Diagnosing degenerative cervical myelopathy

Part 2: Stenosis and chronic compressive spinal cord injury

Part 3: Treatment for degenerative changes in the cervical spine when cervical ligament laxity is suspected of causing instability

Part 1: Degenerative cervical myelopathy – a lack of understanding discussed in the medical literature

Cervical spondylosis is a non-specific degenerative process of the cervical spine, which can cause varying degrees of stenosis of both the central spinal canal and intervertebral neural foramina. Factors contributing to this narrowing include degenerative disc, osteophytes, and hypertrophy of the lamina, articular facets, ligamentum flavum, and posterior longitudinal ligament. Unfortunately, patients and many surgeons do not consider factors such as the loss of cervical lordosis, vertebral body subluxation, and most importantly cervical instability in the mix, as all of these are treatable. Many are left with the belief that it is just osteoarthritis and that nothing can be done about it or that the bone spur has to be taken out by surgery.

There are neurological symptoms to consider as well. In addition to pain, the patient may feel numbness or weakness in their hands. They may suffer from balance problems and unsteady gait. Generally, people we see have already been sent for emergency MRI to discount a more immediate neurological crisis and have been told that what they are suffering from is a slow, degenerative process.

Investigation and understanding of the pathobiology of Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy

Let’s look at an April 2021 study in the Journal of Neurosurgery. Spine, (1) lead by researchers at the University of Toronto. What the researchers said was that while “Degenerative cervical myelopathy is among the most common pathologies affecting the spinal cord its natural history is poorly characterized.” To help with this understanding the researchers then, “investigated functional outcomes in patients with Degenerative cervical myelopathy who were managed nonoperatively (after they had cervical spine surgery that did not alleviate many of their symptoms or conditions) as well as the utility of quantitative clinical measures and MRI to detect deterioration.”

Looking at patients after they had surgery


Neurological Functional Assessments

These researchers discovered that progressive deterioration was best detected with grip strength, hand dexterity, and gait stability. Using an MRI to assess symptoms was considered a poor diagnostic choice.

So what does this mean? It’s an understanding. 

Patients who had cervical spine surgery to address functional symptoms of degenerative cervical myelopathy following the surgery can have the severity of their degenerative condition better understood by loss of grip strength and gait instability. MRIs, for the most part, will not help with diagnosis or treatment for this patient group. Okay, we have this information. What do we do with it?

A 2022 study cited this research and built on it further. Writing in the Global Spine Journal (2), a research team led by the Department of Neurosurgery at the  University of Cambridge proposed a new framework, to support the investigation and understanding of the pathobiology of Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy. The researchers write: “Present pathobiological and mechanistic knowledge does not adequately explain the disease phenotype; why only a subset of patients with visualized cord compression show clinical myelopathy, and the amount of cord compression only weakly correlates with disability. We propose that DCM is better represented as a function of several interacting mechanical forces, such as shear, tension, and compression, alongside an individual’s vulnerability to spinal cord injury, influenced by factors such as age, genetics, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and nervous system status, and time.”

Part 2: Stenosis: Static spinal stenosis and dynamic spinal stenosis

Severe spinal stenosis requiring surgery. The image below is of a patient we saw at our clinic. The patient had horrific nerve symptoms along with signs and symptoms compatible with spinal cord compression. Severe compression of the spinal canal can be seen by an extremely large bone spur from the C5 vertebrae in the A Neutral panel to the left. Panel compression is made significantly worse by an extension (looking up). In the far left panel, the neutral view spinal canal is narrowed by 25% in the center panel the spinal canal is narrowed by 50%.

Severe cervical spinal stenosis requiring surgery

In my opinion, it is of great importance for the patient contemplating cervical surgery, including fusion, to know the difference between static spinal stenosis and dynamic spinal stenosis.

Dynamic spinal canal or neural foramina stenosis means symptomatic narrowing of the space occurring with motion. The reason for this is the inability of the primary stabilizing structures, the spinal ligaments, to keep the adjacent vertebrae from moving. This can only be objectively documented by motion x-rays, MRI, or CT scans. With these scans, it is easy to tell the difference between static and dynamic spinal canal and neural foraminal stenosis.

Degenerative cervical myelopathy symptoms worsened with certain neck movements

In this next segment, we will be discussing various neck movements that may cause the worsening of cervical myelopathy symptoms. In the image below we see what can happen when a patient looks down (cervical flexion) and the impact that cervical instability can cause on the cervical spine from C0-C7.

Degenerative cervical myelopathy symptoms worsened with certain neck movements

A November 2021 exploratory study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy (3) revealed that the motor and somatosensory conductive functions (in simplest terms the control system of movement and many body functions) of the cervical cord changed in different ways in certain dynamic neck positions in cervical spondylotic myelopathy conditions. Compared with somatosensory conduction (the electric signals and messaging centers), the motor conductive function of the cervical cord suffered more severe deteriorations upon cervical flexion, which could partly be attributed to its higher susceptibility to spinal cord ischemia (severe and sudden pain followed by limb or neck and upper back weakness).

The uneven angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation) and vascular distribution (blood flow) in the spinal cord parenchyma (the components of the electric signaling messenger system, the neurons, glial cells, and axonal) might underlie the transient ischemia (mini-strokes) of the cord at flexion.

When the head is looking down, it disrupts new blood vessel formation and blood flow that supports the nervous system a further complication is that this may cause transient ischemia (mini-strokes).

Chronic compressive spinal cord injury

A paper with an April 2023 (4) publication date in the journal Neural Regeneration Research discusses the treatment of Chronic compressive spinal cord injury for patients in the early stages. The authors write: “. . . when nerve compression is not severe, a conservative treatment strategy is usually used, including physical therapy, medication, and epidural steroid injection. For those with moderate to severe clinical symptoms, and those in whom conservative treatment has not succeeded, surgical treatment should be considered. . . (In the author’s opinion) Surgical treatment is the most effective method of treating Chronic compressive spinal cord injury. However, since most people with chronic compressive spinal cord injury present with obvious neurological symptoms, surgical decompression alone cannot completely reverse the pathological changes. It is reported that between 11% and 38% of patients still have some degree of dysfunction after decompression and delayed treatment can lead to worse outcomes or even lifelong disability. At present, hyperbaric oxygen, neurotrophy, acupuncture, and moxibustion are used in clinically targeted treatment strategies, but the effect is limited.”

Cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers (proteins indicating injury and inflammation) of brain white matter could predict the surgical outcome of degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy

In November 2022, European researchers writing in the Spine Journal (5) assessed whether cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers (proteins indicating injury and inflammation) of brain white matter could predict the surgical outcome of degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy. Going into the study, the researchers hypothesized CSF biomarker levels would reflect the severity of preoperative neurological status (the compression of the brainstem in the neck for example); correlate with radiological appearance (radiological evidence of compression), and correlate with clinical outcome. Simply, CSF biomarkers would be elevated in people with neurological-type symptoms and MRI evidence of degenerative disc disease. The same results could help predict who would have a more successful surgery than others.

The researchers looked at twenty-three degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy patients, with an average age of 66 years old years. They found inflammatory markers were significantly higher in the degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy group compared to controls (people without degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy). The results suggest that Cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers of white matter injury and astrogliosis (damage to astrocytes specialized glial cells that protect neurons) may be a useful tool to assess myelopathy severity and predict outcome after surgery while providing valuable information on the underlying pathophysiology.

In other words, Cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers may be able to provide the level of damage caused by spinal cord compression in degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy and how successful surgery may be for correcting it.

Part 3: Treatment for degenerative changes in the cervical spine when cervical ligament laxity is suspected of causing instability

It typically begins with repetitive actions “overuse injury” that results in sprains (ligament damage) and rotational strains or compressive forces to the spine. This causes injury to the cervical facet joints which in turn can jeopardize the natural function of the cervical ligaments and cause cervical facet joint pain. Further degeneration can lead to abnormal motion in the cervical spine and cartilage breakdown.

In our own published research, we documented that the use of conventional modalities for chronic neck pain remains debatable, most treatments have had limited success and despite providing temporary relief of symptoms, these treatments do not address the specific problems of healing and are not likely to offer long-term cures. (6)

In this research, our team led by Danielle Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C, noted that the capsular ligaments are the main stabilizing structures of the facet joints in the cervical spine and have been implicated as a major source of chronic neck pain. Such pain often reflects a state of instability in the cervical spine and is a symptom common to a number of conditions such as:

Cervical Spondylosis cervical ligament damage

In the lower cervical spine (C3-C7), this can cause muscle spasms, crepitation, and/or paresthesia in addition to chronic neck pain. In either case, the presence of excessive motion between two adjacent cervical vertebrae and these associated symptoms is described as cervical instability.

A January 2023 study in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience (7) followed cervical spondylotic myelopathy patients who had surgery, looking for causes or reasons for the patient’s good or poor outcomes. In their follow-up, the researchers found that patients with poor outcomes had a testing discrepancy between deep tendon reflex findings and magnetic resonance imaging findings. Simply the patient’s neurologic response to the reflex test did not match what their MRI was showing in the symptoms that they would have expected to have for cervical stenosis.

We have two groups of patients. Group 1 Neurological symptoms match up well the the MRI. Group 2 Neurological symptoms DO NOT match up well the the MRI.

Please see my article Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency for a continuation of this discussion.

Anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF) compared with laminoplasty

A January 2024 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research (12) evaluated the clinical effectiveness and radiologic results of anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF) compared with laminoplasty in treating multilevel cervical spondylotic myelopathy with developmental canal stenosis (DCS).

Treating Cervical Spondylosis by treating cervical instability

In our research study cited above we looked at how Cervical Spondylosis was described in the medical literature:

The degenerative cascade that causes Cervical Spondylosis, however, begins long before symptoms become evident.

When the ligaments aren’t strong enough to support the cervical spine – Doctors do not expect recovery with conventional treatments

In September 2023, an editorial in the Journal of Clinical Medicine (8) wrote: “Ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament sometimes causes severe myelopathy and requires surgical treatment. The presence of ossification of the ligaments is a risk factor for the incidence of spinal cord injury. However, there are a certain number of patients with large ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligaments who remain asymptomatic or experience only mild numbness for a long period of time.”

“Conservative therapy for cervical radicular pain and axial pain is performed using various medications, including anti-inflammatory analgesics, muscle relaxants, vitamin B12, neuropathic pain medications, steroids, and weak opioids. There remains no effective treatment myelopathy, despite the high level of research in this field.”

Let’s go back to 2011 when doctors writing in the medical publication the Asian Spine Journal (9) gave a good summary of the problem of Ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament.

Ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament is a condition of abnormal calcification of the posterior longitudinal ligament. The most common location is at the cervical spine region. Compression of the spinal cord caused by ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament may lead to neurologic symptoms and in cases with severe neurologic deficit, surgical treatments are required.

However, the exact pathogenesis (origins) and natural history (progression) of ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament remain unclear, there is no standard treatment for patients with asymptomatic ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament, and there is disagreement about the best surgical approach for cervical fusion surgery.

The same research team also gives us a good idea of the progression of treatments that lead to unsure surgery recommendation

As symptomatic treatments, pain medication, topical agents, anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and opioids can be applied, and bed rest and assist devices, such as a brace, are recommended for local stabilization. However, once the symptoms of myelopathy, such as gait disturbance and disorders of fine motor movement in the hand develop, appropriate recovery is not expected with conservative treatments. The patient moves on to surgery.

The research cited above comes from 2011, in a new study from August 2017, doctors at the Fujian Medical University in China published research in the medical journal Medicine that evaluated the effectiveness of various surgical interventions for the management of cervical spondylosis due to the ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament. (11)

What is interesting in this study is that the doctors found success in treating patients surgically in a manner similar to the concepts of Prolotherapy. Let’s look at this fascinating comparison in bullet points:

Let’s finish up this comparison with conclusion notes from surgeons:

In our clinical and research observations, we have documented that Prolotherapy can offer answers for sufferers of cervical instability, as it treats the problem at its source. Prolotherapy to the various structures of the neck eliminates the instability and the sympathetic symptoms without many of the short-term and long-term risks of cervical fusion. We concluded that in many cases of chronic neck pain, the cause may be underlying joint instability and capsular ligament laxity. Furthermore, we contend that the use of comprehensive Prolotherapy appears to be an effective treatment for chronic neck pain and cervical instability, especially when due to ligament laxity. The technique is safe and relatively non-invasive as well as efficacious in relieving chronic neck pain and its associated symptoms.

Medical research validating the use of Comprehensive Prolotherapy, from simple dextrose injections to stem cell prolotherapy injections is not new. There are 55 years of research supporting the use of Prolotherapy for problems of the neck and head. (10)

If you have questions about Cervical Spondylosis, you can get help and information from our Caring Medical Staff

References for this article:

1 Martin AR, Kalsi-Ryan S, Akbar MA, Rienmueller AC, Badhiwala JH, Wilson JR, Tetreault LA, Nouri A, Massicotte EM, Fehlings MG. Clinical outcomes of nonoperatively managed degenerative cervical myelopathy: an ambispective longitudinal cohort study in 117 patients. Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. 2021 Apr 9;1(aop):1-9. [Google Scholar]
2 Davies BM, Mowforth O, Gharooni AA, Tetreault L, Nouri A, Dhillon RS, Bednarik J, Martin AR, Young A, Takahashi H, Boerger TF. A New Framework for Investigating the Biological Basis of Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy [AO Spine RECODE-DCM Research Priority Number 5]: Mechanical Stress, Vulnerability and Time. Global Spine Journal. 2022 Feb;12(1_suppl):78S-96S. [Google Scholar]
3 Yu Z, Cheng X, Chen J, Huang Z, He S, Hu H, Lin S, Zou Z, Huang F, Chen B, Wan Y. Spinal cord parenchyma vascular redistribution underlies hemodynamic and neurophysiological changes at dynamic neck positions in cervical spondylotic myelopathy. Frontiers in neuroanatomy. 2021;15. [Google Scholar]
4 Ren ZX, Xu JH, Cheng X, Xu GX, Long HQ. Pathophysiological mechanisms of chronic compressive spinal cord injury due to vascular events. Neural Regen Res. 2023 Apr;18(4):790-796.
5 Tsitsopoulos PP, Mondello S, Holmström U, Marklund N. Cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers of white matter injury and astrogliosis are associated with the severity and surgical outcome of degenerative cervical spondylotic myelopathy. The Spine Journal. 2022 Jun 24. [Google Scholar]
6 Steilen D, Hauser R, Woldin B, Sawyer S. Chronic neck pain: making the connection between capsular ligament laxity and cervical instability. Open Orthop J. 2014 Oct 1;8:326-45. doi: 10.2174/1874325001408010326. eCollection 2014. [Google Scholar]
7 Takizawa T, Ikegami S, Uehara M, Kuraishi S, Oba H, Munakata R, Hatakenaka T, Kamanaka T, Miyaoka Y, Mimura T, Koseki M. Surgical results for cervical spondylotic myelopathy with inconsistent between deep tendon reflex findings and magnetic resonance imaging findings. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. 2023 Jan 1;107:157-61. [Google Scholar]
8 Furuya T, Sakai K, Yoshii T, Machino M. Conservative Treatment and Surgical Indication of Cervical Ossification of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2023 Sep 1;12(17):5719. [Google Scholar]
9. Choi BW, Song KJ, Chang H. Ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament: a review of literature. Asian spine journal. 2011 Dec 1;5(4):267-76.  [Google Scholar]
10. Wu D, Liu CZ, Yang H, Li H, Chen N. Surgical interventions for cervical spondylosis due to ossification of posterior longitudinal ligament: A meta-analysis. Medicine. 2017 Aug 1;96(33):e7590. Google Scholar]
11. Hackett GS, Huang TC, RAFTERY A. Prolotherapy for headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 1962 Apr 1;2(1):20-8. [Google Scholar]
12 Dai L, Qin C, Guo P, Gong H, Wang W, Hou X, Du K, Zhang C. Comparison of anterior cervical diskectomy with fusion (ACDF) and laminoplasty treating multilevel cervical spondylotic myelopathy with developmental canal stenosis: a retrospective study. Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research. 2024 Dec;19(1):1-8. [Google Scholar]

This article was updated January 20, 2024



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