Rheumatoid arthritis of the cervical spine--clinical considerations

Bull NYU Hosp Jt Dis. 2011;69(2):136-48.


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, systemic inflammatory disorder affecting multiple organ systems, joints, ligaments, and bones and commonly involves the cervical spine. Chronic synovitis may result in bony erosion and ligamentous laxity that result in instability and subluxation. Anterior atlantoaxial subluxation (AAS) is the most frequently occurring deformity, due to laxity of the primary and secondary ligamentous restraints. Additional manifestations of RA include cranial settling, subaxial subluxation, or a combination of these. Although clinical findings can be confounded by the severity of multifocal joint and systemic involvement, a careful history is critical to identify symptoms of cervical disease; serial physical examination is the best noninvasive diagnostic tool. Thorough physical and neurologic examinations should be performed in all patients and serial functional assessments charted. Radiographs of the cervical spine with lateral flexion-extension dynamic views should be obtained periodically and used to "clear" the cervical spine before elective surgery requiring general anesthesia. Advanced imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or myelography and computed tomography (CT), may be necessary to evaluate the neuraxis. Early initiation of pharmacotherapy may slow progression of rheumatoid cervical disease. Operative intervention before the onset of advanced myelopathy results in improved outcomes compared to the surgical stabilization of patients whose conditions are more advanced. A multidisciplinary approach involving rheumatology, surgery, and rehabilitation is beneficial to optimize outcomes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid* / complications
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid* / diagnosis
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid* / physiopathology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid* / therapy
  • Atlanto-Axial Joint* / diagnostic imaging
  • Atlanto-Axial Joint* / pathology
  • Atlanto-Axial Joint* / physiopathology
  • Atlanto-Axial Joint* / surgery
  • Cervical Vertebrae* / diagnostic imaging
  • Cervical Vertebrae* / pathology
  • Cervical Vertebrae* / physiopathology
  • Cervical Vertebrae* / surgery
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Joint Dislocations / etiology
  • Joint Instability / etiology
  • Orthopedic Procedures
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Radiography
  • Recovery of Function
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antirheumatic Agents