Cervical Spondylosis; Causes, Symptom, Diagnosis, Treatment

Cervical spondylosis

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Cervical spondylosis is a generalized disease process affecting all levels of the cervical spine. Cervical spondylosis encompasses a sequence of degenerative changes in the intervertebral discs, osteophytosis of the vertebral bodies, hypertrophy of the facets and laminal arches, and ligamentous and segmental instability. The natural history of cervical spondylosis is associated with the aging process. Senescent and pathologic processes are thus morphologically indistinguishable. Clinical manifestations of cervical spondylosis may arise when morphologic sequelae are superimposed on a developmentally narrow spinal canal. The two clinical syndromes of spondylotic radiculopathy and myelopathy are distinct, yet they may overlap.[Rx]
Cervical spondylosis is a chronic degenerative condition of the cervical spine that affects the vertebral bodies and intervertebral disks of the neck.  The disks lose water content and shrink and spur often form as osteoarthritis develops.  It is quite common and progresses with age
Cervical spondylosis is a disorder of age-related wear affecting the disks and vertebrae of the cervical spine.[Increasing clinical imaging data evidence that age is a risk factor and a contributor to the incidence of cervical spondylosis that increases with aging.[ However, our clinical investigation has recently demonstrated that the trend of the incidence of cervical spondylosis decreases with aging in the elderly and increases with aging in the young and the adults.

Risk Factors for Cervical Spondylosis

The lists below are the factors that you will have a higher risk of getting neck pain and cervical spondylosis:

  • Genetics – if your family has a history of neck pain
  • Smoking – clearly linked to increased neck pain
  • Occupation – jobs with lots of neck motion and overhead work
  • Mental health issues – depression/anxiety
  • Injuries/trauma – car wreck or on-the-job injury

“Red flag” features and the conditions they may suggest

Malignancy, infection, or inflammation

  • Fever, night sweats
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • History of inflammatory arthritis, malignancy, infection, tuberculosis, HIV infection, drug dependency, or immunosuppression
  • Excruciating pain
  • Intractable night pain
  • Cervical lymphadenopathy
  • Exquisite tenderness over a vertebral body


  • Gait disturbance or clumsy hands, or both
  • Objective neurological deficit—upper motor neurone signs in the legs and lower motor neurone signs in the arms
  • Sudden onset in a young patient suggests disc prolapse


  • History of severe osteoporosis
  • History of neck surgery
  • Drop attacks, especially when moving the neck, suggest vascular disease
  • Intractable or increasing pain

Symptoms of Cervical Spondylosis

The pain can be from minor to major and it becomes worse when looking up or down for a long period of time, such example are reading a book or driving. To improve the pain, most people tend to takes rest or even lay down. Pain usually becomes worse in the morning and at the end of the day.

Symptoms of cervical spondylosis include:

  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Numbness and weakness in the upper limbs
  • Difficulty in walking, losing balance, or weakness in limbs
  • Difficulty in turning the head fully or bending the neck, which may hinder drive
  • Muscle spasms in neck and shoulders
  • Headaches
  • Grinding and popping feeling in the neck when rotating the head
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control.

Another related condition as cervical spondylosis is cervical radiculopathy, where the bone spurs put pressure on the nerves which are in between the spinal column and usually the pain spreads to one or both arms.

Causes of Cervical spondylosis

A clinical syndrome caused by compression on the spinal cord that is characterized by

  • clumsiness in hands
  • gait imbalance
  • degenerative cervical spondylosis (CSM) 
  • compression usually caused by anterior degenerative changes (osteophytes, discosteophyte complex)
  • degenerative spondylolisthesis and hypertrophy of ligamentum flavum may contribute
  • the most common cause of cervical myelopathy

Congenital stenosis

Symptoms usually begin when congenital narrowing combined with spondylotic degenerative changes in older patients

  • OPLL 
  • tumor
  • epidural abscess 
  • trauma
  • cervical kyphosis

Neurologic injury

  • mechanism of injury can be
  • direct cord compression
  • ischemic injury secondary to compression of the anterior spinal artery

Associated conditions

  • lumbar spinal stenosis 
  • tandem stenosis occurs in the lumbar and cervical spine in ~20% of patients
  • tends to be slowly progressive and rarely improves with nonoperative modalities
  • progression characterized by steplike deterioration with periods of stable symptoms
  • early recognition and treatment prior to spinal cord damage is critical for good clinical outcomes
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Symptoms of Cervical spondylosis

  • neck pain and stiffness
  • axial neck pain (often times absent)
  • occipital headache common
  • extremity paresthesias
  • diffuse nondermatomal numbness and tingling
  • weakness and clumsiness
  • weakness and decreased manual dexterity (dropping object, difficulty manipulating fine objects)
  • Gait instability patient feels “unstable” on feet
  • weakness walking up and down stairs
  • gait changes are the most important clinical predictor
  • urinary retention rare and only appear late in disease progression, not very useful in diagnosis due to the high prevalence of urinary conditions in this patient population
  • Cervical pain aggravated by movement
  • Referred pain (occiput, between the shoulder blades, upper limbs)
  • Retro-orbital or temporal pain (from C1 to C2)
  • Cervical stiffness—reversible or irreversible
  • Vague numbness, tingling, or weakness in upper limbs
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Poor balance
  • Rarely, syncope triggers a migraine, “pseudo-angina”[#]


  • Poorly localized tenderness
  • Limited range of movement (forward flexion, backward extension, lateral flexion, and rotation to both sides)
  • Minor neurological changes like inverted supinator jerks (unless complicated by myelopathy or radiculopathy)

Physical exam of Cervical spondylosis

Differential diagnosis of cervical spondylosis

  • Other non-specific neck pain lesions—acute neck strain, postural neck ache, or whiplash
  • Fibromyalgia and psychogenic neck pain
  • Mechanical lesions—disc prolapse or diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis
  • Inflammatory disease—rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or polymyalgia rheumatica
  • Metabolic diseases—Paget’s disease, osteoporosis, gout, or pseudo-gout
  • Infections—osteomyelitis or tuberculosis
  • Malignancy—primary tumors, secondary deposits, or myeloma

Motor signs

  • Weakness in triceps and hand intrinsics
  • Atrophy of intrinsic hand muscles
  • Clumsiness with fine motor skills
  • The proximal weakness of the lower extremities
  • weakness usually difficult to detect on physical exam
  • lower extremity weakness is a more concerning finding
  • finger escape sign when patient holds fingers extended and adducted, the small finger spontaneously abducts due to the weakness of intrinsic muscle grip and release test normally a patient can make a fist and release 20 times in 10 seconds. myelopathic patients may struggle to do this

Upper motor neuron signs

  • Hoffman’s sign (quick flexion of both the thumb and index finger when the middle finger nail is snapped)
  • Inverted radial reflex (flexion of the fingers in response to the brachioradialis reflex)
  • Pathological clonus
  • Babinski sign

Sensory dysfunction

  • Glove-like sensory loss in hands
  • Proprioceptive dysfunction

proprioception dysfunction

  • due to dorsal column involvement 
  • occurs in advanced disease
  • associated with a poor prognosis

Decreased pain sensation

  • pinprick testing should be done to look for a global decrease in sensation or dermatomal changes
  • due to the involvement of lateral spinothalamic tract 
  • vibratory changes are usually only found in the severe case of long-standing myelopathy

Assessment tools

  • Lhermitte sign
  • Romberg test
  • 9-Hole peg test
  • Grip and release test (observe a decrease number of cycles)
  • Timed gait, 30-m walking test
  • Tandem gait

Upper motor neuron signs (spasticity)


  • may be absent when there is concomitant peripheral nerve disease (cervical or lumbar nerve root compression, spinal stenosis, diabetes)

Inverted radial reflex:

  • tapping distal brachioradialis tendon produces ipsilateral finger flexion

Hoffmann’s sign

  • snapping patients distal phalanx of middle finger leads to spontaneous flexion of other fingers

sustained clonus 

  • > three beats defined as sustained clonus
  • sustained clonus has poor sensitivity (~13%) but high specificity (~100%) for cervical myelopathy

Babinski test 

  • considered positive with the extension of the great toe

Gait and balance

  • toe-to-heel walk patient has difficulty performing
  • Romberg test patient stands with arms held forward and eyes closed loss of balance consistent with posterior column dysfunction
  • provocative tests: Lhermitte Sign >test is positive when extreme cervical flexion leads to electric shock-like sensations that radiate down the spine and into the extremities
Motor dysfunction
Upper extremities
Unable to move hands
1Unable to eat with a spoon but able to move hands
2Unable to button shirt but able to eat with a spoon
3Able to button shirt with great difficulty
4Able to button shirt with slight difficulty
Lower extremities
Complete loss of motor & sensory function
1Sensory preservation without ability to move legs
2Able to move legs but unable to walk
3Able to walk on flat floor with a walking aid (cane or crutch)
4Able to walk up- &/or downstairs w/aid of a handrail
5Moderate-to-significant lack of stability but able to walk up &/or downstairs without handrail
6Mild lack of stability but able to walk unaided with smooth reciprocation
7No dysfunction
Sensory dysfunction
Upper extremities
Complete loss of hand sensation
1Severe sensory loss or pain
2Mild sensory loss
3No sensory loss
Sphincter dysfunction
Unable to micturate voluntarily
1Marked difficulty in micturition
2Mild-to-moderate difficulty in micturition
3Normal micturition



  • recommended views cervical AP, lateral, oblique, flexion, and extension views
  • general findings degenerative changes of uncovertebral and facet joints
  • osteophyte formation
  • disc space narrowing
  • decreased sagittal diameter
  • cord compression occurs with canal diameter is < 13mm
  • lateral radiograph important to look for the diameter of the spinal canal
  • a Pavlov ratio of less than 0.8 suggests a congenitally narrow spinal canal predisposing to stenosis and cord compression
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Sagittal alignment

  • C2 to C7 alignment determined by tangential lines on the posterior edge of the C2 and C7 body on lateral radiographs in neutral position
  • local kyphosis angle the angle between the lines drawn at the posterior margin of most cranial and caudal vertebral bodies forming the maximum local kyphosis
  • oblique radiograph important to look for foraminal stenosis which often caused by uncovertebral joint arthrosis
  • flexion and extension views important to look for angular or translational instability look for compensatory subluxation above or below the spondylotic/stiff segment
  • sensitivity/specificity changes often do not correlate with symptoms 70% of patients by 70 yrs of age will have degenerative changes seen on plain x -rays


  • MRI is a study of choice to evaluate the degree of the spinal cord and nerve root compression effacement of CSF indicates functional stenosis
  • signal changes on T1-weighted images correlate with a poorer prognosis following surgical decompression spinal cord signal changes
  • seen as bright signal on T2 images (myelomalacia) compression ratio of < 0.4 carries poor prognosis CR = smallest AP diameter of cord / largest transverse diameter of the cord
  • sensitivity/specificity has a high rate of false positive (28% greater than 40 will have findings of HNP or foraminal stenosis)
  • CT without contrast can provide complementary information with an MRI and is more useful to evaluate OPLL and osteophytes
  • CT myelography more invasive than an MRI but gives excellent information regarding degrees of spinal cord compression
  • useful in patients that cannot have an MRI (pacemaker), or have artifact (local hardware)
  • contrast given via C1-C2 puncture and allowed to diffuse caudally, or given via a lumbar puncture and allowed to diffuse proximally by putting patient in trendelenburg position.

Nerve conduction studies high false negative rate may be useful to distinguish peripheral from central process (ALS)

  • Normal aging mild symptoms of myelopathy often confused with a “normal aging” process
  • Stroke
  • Movement disorders
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Multiple sclerosis

Treatment of Cervical spondylosis


Observation, NSAIDs, therapy, and lifestyle modifications

  • indications mild disease with no functional impairment
  • the function is a more important determinant for surgery than physical exam finding 
  • patients who are poor candidates for surgery
  • modalities medications (NSAIDS, gabapentin)
  • immobilization (hard collar in slight flexion)
  • physical therapy for neck strengthening, balance, and gait training
  • traction and chiropractic modalities are not likely to benefit and do have some risks
  • be sure to watch patients carefully for progression
  • outcomes improved nonoperative outcomes associated with patients with larger transverse area of the spinal cord (>70mm2) 
  • some studies have shown improvement with immobilization in patients with very mild symptoms


surgical decompression, restoration of lordosis, stabilization 

  • indications significant functional impairment AND 1-2 level disease lordotic, neutral or kyphotic alignment
  • techniques appropriate procedure depends on cervical alignment number of stenotic levels
  • medical conditions (e.g., goiter)
  • location of compression
  • anterior cervical diskectomy/corpectomy and fusion
  • posterior laminectomy and fusion 
  • posterior laminoplasty
  • combined anterior and posterior procedure 
  • cervical disk arthroplasty 
  • outcomes prospective studies show improvement in overall pain, function, and neurologic symptoms with operative treatment early recognition and treatment prior to spinal cord damage is critical for good clinical outcomes


optimal surgical treatment depends on the individual. Things to consider include

  • number of stenotic levels
  • sagittal alignment of the spine
  • the degree of existing motion and desire to maintain
  • medical comorbidities (eg, dysphasia)
  • simplified treatment algorithm

Anterior Decompression and Fusion (ACDF) alone


  • the mainstay of treatment in most patients with single or two level disease 
  • fixed cervical kyphosis of > 10 degrees   anterior procedure can correct kyphosis
  • compression arising from 2 or fewer disc segments 
  • pathology is anterior (OPLL, soft discs, disc osteophyte complexes)


  • uses Smith-Robinson anterior approach

Decompression of corpectomy and strut graft may be required for multilevel spondylosis two level corpectomies tend to be biomechanically vulnerable (preferable to combine single-level corpectomy with adjacent level diskectomy)

  • 7% to 20% rates of graft dislodgement with cervical corpectomy with associated severe complications, including death, reported.
  • fixation anterior plating functions to increase fusion rates and preserve the position of the interbody cage or strut graft
  • pros & cons advantages compared to posterior approach lower infection rate blood loss less postoperative pain disadvantages avoid in patients with poor swallowing function
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Laminectomy with posterior fusion

  • multilevel compression with kyphosis of < 10 degrees,> 13 degrees of fixed kyphosis is a contraindication for a posterior procedure 
  • in the flexible kyphotic spine, posterior decompression and fusion may be indicated if kyphotic deformity can be corrected prior to instrumentation


  • fixed kyphosis of > 10 degrees is a contraindication to posterior decompression
  •  will not adequately decompress spinal cord as it is “bowstringing” anterior  

Pros & cons

  • fusion may improve neck pain associated with degenerative facets
  • not effective in patients with > 10 degrees fixed kyphosis


  • gaining in popularity
  • useful when maintaining motion is desired
  • avoids complications of fusion so may be indicated in patients at high risk of pseudoarthrosis


  • cervical kyphosis > 13 degrees is a contraindication to posterior decompression 
     will not adequately decompress spinal cord as it is “bowstringing” anterior
  • severe axial neck pain is a relative contraindication and these patients should be fused


  • the volume of the canal is expanded by hinged-door laminoplasty followed by fusion 
    usually performed from C3 to C7
  • open door technique hinges created unilaterally at the junction of lateral mass and lamina and opening on opposite side opening held open by bone, suture anchors, or special plates
  • French door technique hinge created bilaterally and the opening created midline

Pros &  cons advantages

  • lower complication rate than multilevel anterior decompression especially in patients with OPLL a motion-preserving technique pseudoarthrosis not a concern in patients with poor healing potential (diabetes, chronic steroid users) can be combined with a subsequent anterior procedure
  • allows for decompression of multilevel stenotic myelopathy without compromising stability and motion (avoids postlaminectomy kyphosis)


  • higher average blood loss than anterior procedures 
  • postoperative neck pain
  • still associated with loss of motion outcomes equivalent to multilevel anterior decompression and fusion
  • Combined anterior and posterior surgery multilevel stenosis in the rigid kyphotic spine
  • multi-level anterior cervical corpectomies 
  • postlaminectomy kyphosis

Laminectomy alone 

  • indications rarely indicated due to risk of post laminectomy kyphosis 
  • pros & cons progressive kyphosis 11 to 47% incidence if laminectomy performed alone without fusion

Surgical Infection

  • higher rate of surgical infection with posterior approach than anterior approach
  • Pseudoarthrosis incidence 12% for single level fusions, 30% for multilevel fusions treatment
  • treat with either posterior wiring or plating or repeat anterior decompression and plating if patient has symptoms of radiculopathy

Postoperative C5 palsy 

  • reported to occur in ~ 4.6% of patients after surgery for cervical compression myelopathy
  • no significant differences between patients undergoing anterior decompression and fusion and posterior laminoplasty
  • occurs immediately postop to weeks following surgery


  • mechanism is controversial
  • in laminectomy patients, it is thought to be caused by tethering of nerve root with dorsal migration of spinal cord following removal of posterior elements


  • patients with postoperative C5 palsy generally have a good prognosis for functional recovery, but recovery takes time
  • Recurrent laryngeal nerve injury approach in the past it has been postulated that the RLN is more vulnerable to injury on the right due to a more aberrant pathway recent studies have shown there is not an increased injury rate with a right sided approach
  •  treatment if you have a postoperative RLN palsy, watch over time
  • if not improved over 6 weeks, then ENT consult to scope patient and inject teflon
  • if you are performing revision anterior cervical surgery, and there is an any suspicion of a RLN from the first operation, obtain ENT consult to establish prior injury
  • if patient has prior RLN nerve injury, perform revision surgery on the same as the prior injury/approach to prevent a bilateral RLN injury
  • Hardware failure and migration 7-20% with two level anterior corpectomies two-level corpectomies should be stabilized from behind
  • Postlaminectomy kyphosis treat with anterior/posterior procedure 
  • Postoperative axial neck pain
  • Vertebral artery injury
  • Esophageal Injury
  • Dysphagia & alteration in speech

Keywords: degenerative disc disease, cervical spondylosis, cervical spondylotic myelopathy, cervical                                     spine stenosis, anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, cervical laminoplasty, cervical disk replacement


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