The suboccipital ligament

J Neurosurg. 2018 Jan;128(1):165-173. doi: 10.3171/2016.10.JNS162161. Epub 2017 Apr 14.


OBJECTIVE A fibrous structure located dorsal to the dura at the posterior craniocervical junction stretches horizontally between the bilateral occipital condyles and the upper borders of the C-1 laminae. Partially covered by the occipital bone, this structure is always encountered when the bone is removed from the foramen magnum rim during approaches to the posterior cranial fossa. Although known to surgeons, this structure has not been defined, studied, or named. The most appropriate name for this structure is "the suboccipital ligament," and a detailed rationale for this name is provided. METHODS This 3-year-long study included 10 cadaveric specimens and 39 clinical patients: 31 consecutive surgically treated patients with Chiari Type I malformations (CM-I subgroup) and 8 other patients with posterior fossa pathologies (non-CM-I subgroup). The dimensions were defined, the function of this ligament was hypothesized, size and histological composition were compared between patient subgroups, and its origin and relationship to the surrounding structures were analyzed. Possible statistical differences in the parameters between the 2 groups were also evaluated. RESULTS The suboccipital ligament consists of horizontally oriented hyaline fibers and has a median length of 35 mm, height of 10 mm, and thickness of 0.5 mm. These dimensions are not significantly different between the CM-I and non-CM-I patients. The median age of the patients was 43 years, with CM-I patients being significantly younger (median 35 years) than non-CM-I patients (median 57 years). There was no statistically significant difference in weight, height, and body mass index between patient subgroups. There was no significant correlation between the body mass index or height of the patients and the dimensions of the ligament. No statistically significant differences existed between the subgroups in terms of smoking history, alcohol consumption, and the presence of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hydrocephalus, or headaches. The ligament tissue in the CM-I patients was disorganized with poorly arranged collagen bands and interspersed adipose tissue. These patients also had more hyalinized fibrosis and showed changes in the direction of fibers, with hyaline nodules ranging from 0 to 2+. The result of the histological evaluation of the suboccipital ligament for hyaline nodules, calcification, and ossification was graded as 2+ if present in 3 or more medium-power magnification fields (MPFs); 1+ if present in 1-2 MPFs; and 0, if present in less than 1 MPF. Histological examination of the ligaments showed structural differences between CM-I and non-CM-I patients, most notably the presence of hyaline nodules and an altered fiber orientation in CM-I patients. CONCLUSIONS The suboccipital ligament extends between the occipital condyle and the superior edge of the C-1 lamina, connecting the contralateral sides, and appears to function as a real ligament. It is ventral to the occipital bone, which covers approximately two-thirds of the height of the ligament and is loosely attached to the dura medially and more firmly laterally. Because of its distinctive anatomy, characteristics, and function, the suboccipital ligament deserves its own uniform designation and name.

Keywords: BMI = body mass index; CM-I = Chiari malformation Type I; Chiari I malformation; MPF = medium-power magnification field; anatomy; atlantooccipital ligament; dural band; posterior atlantooccipital membrane; suboccipital approach; suboccipital ligament.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / pathology
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / surgery
  • Cervical Atlas
  • Dura Mater
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ligaments / anatomy & histology*
  • Ligaments / surgery
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occipital Bone
  • Organ Size
  • Prospective Studies
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Young Adult