Cervical refers to the neck while myelopathy is a disorder of the spinal cord. Thus, cervical myelopathy is a spinal cord compression in the neck. Here’s an overview of the spine to explain what happens with cervical myelopathy.
The spine contains major nerves that run from the brain to the arms, legs, fingers, and toes. The cervical part of the spine has seven vertebrae, or bones, commonly referred to as C1 to C7. The neck features six discs and eight nerve roots. As part of the spinal column, the vertebrae protect the spinal cord and nerve roots.
The vertebrae are the bones that make up the building blocks of the spine. The nerves branch from the spinal cord and exit through the small openings between vertebra out to the sides. These openings are called foramina.
These nerves are responsible for the sensation and movement of the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. A compressed nerve in the neck is called radiculopathy and causes symptoms that affect the neck, arms, and legs. Myelopathy is a more severe condition in which the spinal cord itself is compressed. Radiculopathy and myelopathy are both common disorders. Myelopathy affects more than 200,000 people in the U.S. every year.
What Causes Cervical Myelopathy?
An injury to the spinal column could cause compression. Or the compression could be caused by congenital stenosis, disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, or trauma. Its symptoms typically appear in the neck or down the body beginning at or below the area that’s compressed.
Myelopathy can cause the following symptoms:
- Neck pain or stiffness
- Tingling, weakness, or numbness in arms, fingers, hands
- Balance issues that could affect walking
- Trouble with fine motor skills such as buttoning buttons
The most common cause of cervical radiculopathy is spinal stenosis. This is the narrowing of the spinal canal. It compresses or irritates the nerves. A disc herniation can also compress the nerve. The discs in the vertebrae contain a jelly-like center. As people age, the jelly gets dehydrated, which causes it to flatten and push on the spinal cord or nerve.
Dehydrated discs can cause another issue. As they flatten, this results in the vertebrae moving closer together. To make up for the thinned-out disc, the body forms new bone around it to strengthen it. This new bone is known as a bone spur or osteophyte. It can cause the spinal canal to narrow which can lead to myelopathy.
Rheumatoid arthritis, tumors, cancers, and injuries can also cause cervical myelopathy.
How Cervical Myelopathy Is Diagnosed and Treated?
If the symptoms point to cervical myelopathy, make an appointment to see a healthcare provider. Cervical myelopathy in some cases will require urgent surgical intervention to prevent a further loss of neurological function. The sooner myelopathy is diagnosed, the more likely treatment will be successful. At the appointment, the healthcare provider will review the patient’s medical history. A physical exam usually follows as well as the ordering of X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, or an electromyography (EMG). These will help explore the cause of myelopathy.
The good news is that myelopathy can usually be treated successfully once identified. Both nonsurgical and surgical treatment options are available. These include wearing a cervical collar, undergoing physical therapy, or taking medicine. If all the other options have been ruled out, the neurosurgeon who is a back and spine doctor may recommend one of a few possible surgical procedures. The right one depends on various factors.
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