Seventy-five patients who underwent surgical treatment for cervical spondylotic myelopathy were evaluated with respect to the operative procedure performed and their outcome. Forty patients underwent a laminectomy plus dentate ligament section (DLS), 18 underwent laminectomy alone, and 17 underwent an anterior cervical decompression and fusion (ACDF). The patients were evaluated postoperatively for both stability and for neurologic outcome using a modification of the Japanese Orthopaedic Association Assessment Scale. Functional improvement occurred in all but one patient in the laminectomy plus DLS group. The average improvement was 3.1 +/- 1.5 points in this group; whereas the average improvement in the laminectomy and the ACDF groups was 2.7 +/- 2.0 and 3.0 +/- 2.0 points respectively. All of the patients who improved substantially (greater than or equal to 6 points) in the laminectomy plus DLS and the laminectomy alone groups had normal cervical spine contours (lordosis). The remainder had either a normal lordosis or no curve (no kyphosis or lordosis). All patients in the ACDF group had either a straight spine or a cervical kyphosis. These factors implicate spine curvature, in addition to choice of operation, as factors which are important in outcome determination. No problems with instability occurred in either the laminectomy or the laminectomy plus DLS group. Two patients incurred problems with stability in the ACDF group. Both required reoperation. In addition, four patients in this group who initially improved, subsequently deteriorated. Six patients in the laminectomy plus DLS group had a several day febrile episode related to an aseptic meningitis process. Laminectomy plus DLS is a safe and efficacious alternative to laminectomy for the treatment of cervical spondylotic myelopathy. The data presented here suggests that myelopathic patients with a cervical kyphosis are best treated with an ACDF and that patients with a normal cervical lordosis are best treated with a posterior approach. Although some selected patients may benefit from DLS, no criteria are available which differentiate this small subset of patients.