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Cervical Myelopathy

Cervical myelopathy is a compression of the spinal cord in your neck that can block nerve signals and cause pain, weakness or numbness in your arms and legs.

Cervical myelopathy is a common disorder that typically affects adults over 50. Age-related changes, bone spurs, disc conditions, spinal tumors and other issues can narrow your spinal canal and press on your spinal cord, causing myelopathy. Multiple sclerosis and other diseases, injuries or arthritis of the spine can also lead to myelopathy.

Prevention

Myelopathy that’s due to normal aging or disease may not be preventable; however, you can lower your risk by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You can reduce your risk of age-related myelopathy by watching your weight, eating a balanced diet and by not smoking. Smoking weakens your immune system, makes you more vulnerable to infection and accelerates degenerative changes in discs.

If you have risk factors such as an abnormally narrow spinal canal, spinal instability or disc disease, take special care to protect your neck.

Your neck is vulnerable to accidental injury, which can lead to myelopathy. You can lower your risk of injuries by adopting some healthy habits:

  • Practice good posture — especially if you spend hours sitting at the computer.
  • When talking on the phone, keep your head and neck upright. Avoid tilting your neck to cradle the receiver between your shoulder and ear.
  • Take precautions to prevent sprains, strains, broken bones and other injuries. Avoid contact sports and wear protective gear for recreational activities.
  • Attend spine care educational classes, led by spine experts at El Camino Health, to learn more about spinal health.

Symptoms

Cervical myelopathy symptoms sometimes begin slowly and subtly. They may include stiffness or pain in your neck, shoulders, arms or legs. You may experience clumsiness, a loss of balance or difficulty performing simple tasks, such as writing a note or tying your shoes. Other symptoms may include weakness, tingling or numbness in your arms and legs. As symptoms progress, it may become difficult to walk. In some instances, myelopathy can affect bowel or bladder control.

Tell your doctor if you notice symptoms of cervical myelopathy. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent spinal cord damage.

Diagnosis

To diagnose cervical myelopathy, your doctor will examine your neck and evaluate nerve function in your arms and legs. In addition, he or she may test your balance and gait.

Your doctor may use imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI or a myelogram — which uses a contrast dye — to look for problems in the spinal canal. Your doctor may also perform electrical testing of your nerves and spinal cord, such as electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies, to rule out other nerve problems. Other diagnostic testing for cervical myelopathy may include evoked potentials (or evoked response) studies, which measure electrical signals sent through the spinal cord.

Treatment

Depending on test results, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce pain caused by swelling in the spinal cord and nerve roots. Other nonsurgical treatments include neck braces, spinal traction and physical therapy.

If symptoms worsen or don’t improve with nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be the best option to remove tissue, relieve pressure on the spinal cord and stabilize the spine. The spine surgeons at El Camino Health have extensive training in cervical spine surgery, including decompression and complex reconstruction. Our spine surgeons have advanced expertise in less invasive surgery techniques, which can minimize postsurgical discomfort and speed recovery time.

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