Treatment of Cervical Spondylosis with Degenerative cervical myelopathy: Cervical spondylotic myelopathy
Ross Hauser, MD
Treatment of Cervical Spondylosis
- It can be said that Cervical Spondylosis is an umbrella term used to describe degenerative changes in the cervical spine when there is no clear answer as to why you or a particular patient continues to suffer from any one of a long list of symptoms that your doctor has attributed to a problem in your neck.
- In the many patients we have seen, there is confusion, there is frustration, and there is seemingly no plan that these people can see that will help them.
Many patients who visit us have stories of a long medical history. They will tell us about their decades-long battle managing their “health problems.”
- Patients will tell us about their dizziness and their diagnosis of Cervical Vertigo and Cervicogenic Dizziness
- Patients will tell us about their neck pain and vision problems
- Patients will tell us about their headaches
- Patients will tell us about a numbness or pins and needles sensation on one side of their face. Some will even have a diagnosis of Trigeminal neuralgia
- Patients will tell us about fainting or nearly passing out from turning their head one way or another and problems we attribute to Vertebrobasilar insufficiency
- Of course, there will be long medical histories and treatments and possibly surgeries for continued neck pain that radiates into their shoulder, back, arms, and for even into their feet.
Many people with cervical conditions, including cervical spondylosis, choose neck surgery as a treatment option.
Many people with cervical conditions, including cervical spondylosis, choose neck surgery as a treatment option. When a single nerve root is involved from a herniated disc, a posterior microdiscectomy is performed. When nerve roots (whether single or multiple) are involved because of cervical spondylotic osteophytes, a posterior decompression with a laminectomy and foraminotomy can be performed. There are various different operations to take out the bone, disc, and even ligaments to give the nerves more space. These include anterior cervical discectomy or corpectomy, posterior microdiscectomy, posterior cervical laminectomy, and of course, if the surgeon feels that so much tissue had to be taken out that the spine is now unstable, then a fusion also has to be performed. When compression of the spinal cord occurs because of severe cervical instability, anterior cervical decompression and fusion are often the operations of choice, though artificial disc replacements are gaining in popularity.
The reasons for spinal arthrodesis or fusion of the cervical spine include:
(1) to support the spine when its structural integrity has been severely compromised (to reestablish clinical stability),
(2) to maintain correction following mechanical straightening of the spine in scoliosis or kyphosis following osteotomy/laminectomy of the spine,
(3) to alleviate or eliminate pain by stiffening a region of the spine (i.e., diminishing movement between various segments of the spine), and
(4) to prevent the progression of deformity of the spine as in scoliosis, kyphosis, and spondylolisthesis. The risks of spinal surgery include infection; excessive bleeding; adverse reaction to anesthesia; chronic neck or arm pain; inadequate symptom relief; damage to the nerves, nerve roots or spinal cord; spinal instability; damage to the esophagus, trachea, or vocal cords; injury to the carotid or vertebral arteries; and subsequent stroke and non-healing of the fusion.
In the almost 30 years I have been a physician, there is not one body part where the surgical technique is the same today as it was when I started. Unfortunately, most of the surgeries that I assisted in my training are basically not even done anymore because they were such dismal failures.
Degenerative cervical myelopathy – a lack of understanding – diagnostic confusion and surgery recommendations
These people are in our examination rooms because they are looking for answers that they have not found in years of searching and they are fighting the feeling of abandonment from doctors who they believe have a lack of understanding of how to help them.
The patients will describe diagnosis after diagnosis, medical test after medical test, and medication after medication, all with no or short-term help for them. When all these treatments have failed, the patients tell us they get recommended for psychological counseling because they are depressed and nothing has helped them. Some will tell us that even their family and friends have started to doubt that their symptoms are real. Especially when stomach problems and nausea become common.
- This article will present evidence that cervical neck instability from weakened and damaged cervical ligaments is the cause of Cervical Spondylosis related symptoms and that this problem can be helped with Prolotherapy injections by way of repair of the damaged ligaments.
A January 2023 study in the Journal of clinical neuroscience (11) followed cervical spondylotic myelopathy patients who had a 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 reflex test did not match what their MRI was showing in the symptoms that they would have expected to have for cervical stenosis.
- The researchers evaluated 50 patients with cervical spondylotic myelopathy (30 males, 20 females; average age: 70.4 years) who underwent posterior surgery and were followed for at least 1 year postoperatively.
- Patients were defined as having a “matched cervical spondylotic myelopathy,” that is a consistent preoperative neurological pattern determined by deep tendon reflex and cervical MRI results. A lack of consistency in these tests were classified as unmatched cervical spondylotic myelopathy.
We have here 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.
- The researchers found post-operatively, pain, function and disability recovery rates were significantly lower in patients whose MRI and neurological symptoms DO NOT match up well.
- Some of these patients had multiple levels of spinal canal stenosis, foraminal stenosis, and peripheral neuropathy and worsening symptoms.
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.
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 but 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
- In this study, the doctors looked at patients who were newly diagnosed with Degenerative cervical myelopathy or recurrent myelopathic symptoms after having a previous surgery. They were now being managed non-surgically.
- The researchers then reviewed these patients’ charts and MRI scans for worsening compression or increased signal change (The MRI’s determination that increasing or worsening spinal cord compression is occurring).
Neurological Functional Assessments
- The patients were then assessed using standard scoring systems for:
- Motor function
- Upper extremity function.
- Grip Strength
- Gait stability and variance
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?
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%.
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, from keeping 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.
- Dynamic or motion spinal canal and neural foraminal stenosis can be treated by Prolotherapy injections which are described below, whereas static cervical spinal and foraminal stenosis may require surgery, especially if nervous system injury is imminent. The difference is the fact that symptoms of dynamic stenosis occur with movement, whereas static stenosis symptoms occur 24/7 and there is no real position that gives relief.
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.
A November 2021 exploratory study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy (7) 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. (7)
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).
Treatment for degenerative changes in the cervical spine
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. (2)
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:
- disc herniation,
- cervical spondylosis,
- whiplash injury and whiplash-associated disorder,
- post-concussion syndrome,
- vertebrobasilar insufficiency,
- and Barré-Liéou syndrome.
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.
Degenerative cervical myelopathy and cardiovascular symptoms
A paper with an April 2023 (6) publication date in the journal Neural regeneration research discusses the restoration, rebuilding, and repair of blood vessels that service the heart and other organs, among them the brain in a situation of Cervical spondylotic myelopathy.
Let’s look at a paper with an April 2023 publication date in the journal Neural Regeneration Research (6). Explanatory notes are added:
“In the progression of this condition (cervical spondylotic myelopathy), the microvascular network is compressed and destroyed, resulting in ischemia (restricted and reduced blood flow, so in this case the spinal cord and brain) and hypoxia (lack of oxygen). The main pathological changes are inflammation, damage to the blood-spinal cord barriers, (the barrier which protects the spinal cord from toxins, disease-causing pathogens, and blood cells from entering the delectate environment of the spinal cord), and cell apoptosis (cell death) at the site of compression. Studies have confirmed that vascular regeneration and remodeling (blood getting healing elements and oxygen to repair neural damage) contribute to neural repair by promoting blood flow and the reconstruction of effective circulation to meet the nutrient and oxygen requirements for nerve repair.
Surgical decompression is the most effective clinical treatment for this condition; however, in some patients, residual neurological dysfunction remains after decompression. Facilitating revascularization during compression and after decompression is therefore complementary to surgical treatment.”
We are going to return to this paper.
Please see my article Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency for a continuation of this discussion.
Cervical laminoplasty and cervical laminectomy with posterior fixation
A November 2022 paper (8) compared the back approach cervical laminoplasty against cervical laminectomy with posterior fixation. Writing “There is still controversy concerning the technique in terms of outcome and complications,” the researcher’s aim was to analyze and compare from the clinical and radiological points of view these 2 techniques.
- The medical records of 39 patients were reviewed (12 laminectomies with posterior fixation and 27 laminoplasty).
- Significant differences were observed in the postoperative improvement in the laminoplasty group.
- In laminectomy with posterior fixation there is a tendency for a greater improvement, but cannot be confirmed because of the low sample size of this group.
- Conclusions: Laminoplasty and laminectomy with posterior fixation are both safe and effective procedures in the treatment of cervical degenerative myelopathy.
Many people with cervical conditions, including cervical spondylosis, choose neck surgery as a treatment option. When a single nerve root is involved from a herniated disc, a posterior microdiscectomy is performed. When nerve roots (whether single or multiple) are involved because of cervical spondylotic osteophytes, a posterior decompression with a laminectomy and foraminotomy can be performed. There are various different operations to take out the bone, disc, and even ligaments to give the nerves more space. These include anterior cervical discectomy or corpectomy, posterior microdiscectomy, posterior cervical laminectomy, and of course, if the surgeon feels that so much tissue had to be taken out that the spine is now unstable, then a fusion also has to be performed. When compression of the spinal cord occurs because of severe cervical instability, anterior cervical decompression and fusion are often the operations of choice, though artificial disc replacements are gaining in popularity. The reasons for spinal arthrodesis or fusion of the cervical spine include (1) to support the spine when its structural integrity has been severely compromised (to reestablish clinical stability), (2) to maintain correction following mechanical straightening of the spine in scoliosis or kyphosis following osteotomy/laminectomy of the spine, (3) to alleviate or eliminate pain by stiffening a region of the spine (i.e., diminishing movement between various segments of the spine), and (4) to prevent progression of deformity of the spine as in scoliosis, kyphosis, and spondylolisthesis. The risks of spinal surgery include infection; excessive bleeding; adverse reaction to anesthesia; chronic neck or arm pain; inadequate symptom relief; damage to the nerves, nerve roots, or spinal cord; spinal instability; damage to the esophagus, trachea, or vocal cords; injury to the carotid or vertebral arteries; and subsequent stroke and non-healing of the fusion.
Returning to the above research, the study authors continue: “However, since most people with Chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency 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.
Anterior cervical decompression fusion vs. posterior laminoplasty
A December 2022 paper in the Journal of neurological surgery (10) compared anterior cervical decompression fusion outcomes in 47 patients with posterior laminoplasty oputcomes achieved in 79 patients.
Post-surgical findings demonstrated:
- Patients in the ACDF group had a significantly longer surgical time and length of hospital stay than those in the posterior laminoplasty (LAMP) group.
- Certain disability and pain scores in the ACDF group were significantly lower than those in the LAMP group at final follow-up.
- Results indicated that ACDF can improve cervical lordosis better than posterior laminoplasty (LAMP) and patients may have a better improvement of cervical lordosis may have better prognosis.
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 (9) 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 biomarkers 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) make 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.
Understanding Prolotherapy treatment is understanding that we are 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:
- Cervical Spondylosis has previously been described as occurring in three stages:
- The dysfunctional stage: The dysfunctional phase is characterized by cervical capsular ligament injuries and subsequent cartilage degeneration and synovitis, ultimately leading to abnormal motion in the cervical spine. Over time, facet joint dysfunction intensifies as ligament weakness and laxity occurs. This stretching response can cause cervical instability, marking the unstable stage.
- The unstable stage: During the degenerative progression occurring in the intervertebral discs, along with other parts of the cervical spine, ankylosis (stiffening of the joints) can also occur at the unstable cervical spine segment.
- The stabilization stage: The stabilization phase occurs with the formation of marginal osteophytes (bone spurs) as the body tries to heal the spine. These bridging bony deposits can lead to a natural fusion of the affected vertebrae.
The degenerative cascade that causes Cervical Spondylosis, however, begins long before symptoms become evident.
- In its beginning stages, spondylosis develops silently and is asymptomatic. When symptoms of cervical spondylosis do develop, they are generally nonspecific and include neck pain and stiffness. Only rarely do neurologic symptoms develop (ie, radiculopathy or myelopathy), and most often they occur in people with congenitally narrowed spinal canals.
- Physical exam findings are often limited to a restricted range of neck motion and poorly localized tenderness.
- Clinical symptoms commonly manifest when a new cervical ligament injury is superimposed on the underlying degeneration.
- In patients with spondylosis and underlying capsular ligament laxity, cervical radiculopathy is more likely to occur because the neural foramina may already be narrowed from facet joint hypertrophy and disc degeneration, enabling any new injury to more readily pinch on an exiting nerve root.
When the ligaments aren’t strong enough to support the cervical spine – Doctors do not expect recovery with conventional treatments
Korean doctors writing in the medical publication the Asian Spine Journal give 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. (3)
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. (4)
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:
- The Chinese doctors found that cervical fusion for cervical spondylosis due to the ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament worked better if it was performed early in the patient’s diagnosis.
- Clearly, we find comprehensive Prolotherapy works better when treatment occurs earlier in the diagnosis rather than later.
- The researchers found that patients in more significant pain improved the most. Patients with less significant pain did not improve that much.
- We also find that in many patients with significant pain, even the smallest relief is greatly magnified. In patients with less pain, there is obviously less significant pain improvement. For instance, a patient with a 2 out of 10 pain who jumps to 0 – has moved 2 levels. A patient with level 9 pain that improves to level 5 pain has jumped 4 levels. The pain relief is then much more significant. However, our argument is why go through the high risk of cervical fusion for relief of lower-level pain? See below.
- The researchers found that addressing the problem of neck pain by creating stability where the posterior longitudinal ligament had become stiff and painful significantly helped patients.
- We find that Prolotherapy addresses the problem of neck pain by creating stability where the posterior longitudinal ligament had become stiff and painful significantly helping patients in a non-surgical way.
Let’s finish up this comparison with conclusion notes from surgeons:
- There can be limited (successful) surgical outcomes after laminoplasty (the creation of more space for the nerves by removal of bone) with a risk of kyphotic cervical alignment (the cervical spine curves forward after failed cervical surgery), the spinal canal occupation, (bone growth filling in the cervical spinal canals causing cervical stenosis) reossification, (calcium and bone buildup return to the soft tissue to assist in cervical neck stability). And hypermobility of the cervical spine (Cervical instability)
- Laminoplasty has been advocated because of its preservation of the neck range of motion compared with laminectomy with fusion. However, ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament is different from other etiological factors of myelopathy with respect to neck range of motion that may incite further progression of ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament.
- (This is extraordinary. Laminoplasty is preferred because the neck maintains its natural range of motion. However, this may lead to bone and calcium formation in the posterior longitudinal ligament. The range of motion after laminoplasty is unstable. Successful surgery did not correct the problem.)
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. (5)
If you have questions about Cervical Spondylosis, you can get help and information from our Caring Medical Staff
References for this article:
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This page was updated January 6, 2023