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.

  • 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.

Article outline:

Part 1: Diagnosing degenerative cervical myelopathy

  • Degenerative cervical myelopathy – a lack of understanding discussed in the medical literature.
  • Investigation and understanding of the pathobiology of Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy.

Part 2: Stenosis and chronic compressive spinal cord injury

  • Static spinal stenosis and dynamic spinal stenosis.
  • Degenerative cervical myelopathy symptoms worsened with certain neck movements.
  • Chronic compressive spinal cord injury

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

  • Treating Cervical Spondylosis by treating cervical instability.
  • 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.

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

  • 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.

Symptoms

  • 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
    • Sensation
    • Dexterity
    • Balance
    • 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?

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.

  • 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.

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.

  • 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,” which is a consistent preoperative neurological pattern determined by deep tendon reflex and cervical MRI results. A lack of consistency in these tests was classified as unmatched cervical spondylotic myelopathy.

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.

  • The researchers found that post-operatively, pain, function, and disability recovery rates were significantly lower in patients whose MRI and neurological symptoms did not match up well.
  • Some of these patients had multiple levels of spinal canal stenosis, foraminal stenosis, peripheral neuropathy, and worsening symptoms.

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).

  • This was a retrospective analysis of 41 patients who had multilevel cervical spondylotic myelopathy with developmental canal stenosis treated with ACDF or laminoplasty from December 2018 to April 2023. Patients were further separated into subgroups based on whether or not a canal space was present.
  • Conclusions: Both ACDF and laminoplasty were effective for multilevel cervical spondylotic myelopathy patients with developmental canal stenosis. While ACDF could improve cervical lordosis and alleviate neck pain more effectively, it can also result in cervical sagittal imbalance and decreased mobility. Furthermore, the recovery from laminoplasty was superior to that from ACDF for patients with reduced canal space. In contrast, the recovery from both decompression techniques was comparable for individuals in non-reduced canal space.

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 occur. 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 (i.e., 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

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:

  • 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) re-ossification, (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. (10)


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 article was updated January 20, 2024


 

 

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