Occult hypermobility of the craniocervical junction: a case report and review

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Jun;41(6):444-57. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2011.3305. Epub 2011 May 31.


Study design: Resident's case problem.

Background: Patients often present to physical therapists with chief complaints of neck pain, occipital headache, and dizziness associated with a past history of cervical spine injury. These symptoms may be associated with various cervical spine conditions, including craniocervical junction (CCJ) hypermobility.

Diagnosis: This report reviews the history, physical exam, and diagnostic imaging findings of a patient with the above symptoms. This patient, who had a history of multiple cervical spine injuries, was examined with 2 manual therapy provocative tests: the Sharp-Purser test, which is intended to stress the transverse ligament and odontoid, and the modified lateral shear test, which is intended to stress the alar ligaments. The lateral shear test was perceived as demonstrating excessive mobility and a soft end feel, with a "shift" of C1 on C2. Stress cervical radiographs, obtained using open-mouth projections in neutral, left, and right cervical lateral flexion, revealed a 3-mm lateral offset of the right lateral mass of C1 on C2. MRI evaluation of the lower cervical spine did not reveal any significant disc derangement; however, images of the soft tissues of the craniocervical junction were not obtained. Based on the examination and imaging studies, the patient was determined to have a previously undiagnosed hypermobility of the atlantoaxial joint.

Discussion: The patient was advised to avoid rotational manipulation and end range lateral flexion stretching exercises. Axial traction manipulation techniques, midrange stabilization exercises, and postural advice appeared to provide good relief of symptoms. Physical therapists should consider the possibility of CCJ hypermobility in the frontal plane when examining the cervical spine in patients with chronic neck pain, headache, and a past history of trauma. The lateral shear test and stress radiography may provide simple screening tests for occult CCJ hypermobility; however, the reliability and validity of these tests is lacking. Further research on diagnosis and management of CCJ hypermobility is warranted.

Level of evidence: Differential diagnosis, level 4.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Joint Instability / diagnosis*
  • Joint Instability / therapy
  • Neck Pain / diagnosis
  • Neck Pain / therapy