Delayed diagnosis of cervical spondylotic myelopathy by primary care physicians

Neurosurg Focus. 2013 Jul;35(1):E1. doi: 10.3171/2013.3.FOCUS1374.


Object: A retrospective study analyzing medical files of patients who had undergone surgical management for cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM) at a single tertiary hospital was performed to determine the time needed by community care physicians to reach a diagnosis of CSM in patients presenting with typical myelopathic signs and symptoms, and to establish the reasons for the delayed diagnosis when present. Previous studies have documented that early diagnosis and surgical treatment of CSM may improve patients' neurological as well as general outcome. However, patients complaining of symptoms compatible with CSM may undergo lengthy medical investigations and treatments by community-based physicians before a correct diagnosis is made. The authors have found no published data on the process and time frame involved in attaining a diagnosis of CSM in the community setting.

Methods: The medical records of 42 patients were retrospectively reviewed for demographic data, symptoms, time to diagnosis, physician specialty, number of visits involved in the diagnostic process, and neurological status prior to surgery.

Results: The mean time delay from initiation of symptoms to diagnosis of CSM was 2.2 ± 2.3 years. The majority of symptomatic patients (90.4%) initially presented to a family practitioner (69%) or an orthopedic surgeon (21.4%), with fewer patients (9.6%) referring to other disciplines (for example, the emergency department) for initial care. In contrast, the diagnosis of CSM was most often made by neurosurgeons (38.1%) and neurologists (28.6%), and less frequently by orthopedic surgeons (19%) or family physicians (4.8%).

Conclusions: The diagnosis of CSM in the community is frequently delayed, leading to late referral for surgery. A higher index of suspicion for this debilitating entity is required from family practitioners and community-based orthopedic surgeons to prevent neurological sequelae.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cervical Vertebrae / pathology*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / surgery
  • Delayed Diagnosis / trends*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / statistics & numerical data
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / trends
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians, Primary Care / trends*
  • Primary Health Care / methods
  • Primary Health Care / trends
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Cord Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Spinal Cord Diseases / surgery
  • Spondylosis / diagnosis*
  • Spondylosis / surgery