Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy: Recognition and Management

Am Fam Physician. 2020 Dec 15;102(12):740-750.


Degenerative cervical myelopathy encompasses a collection of pathologic conditions that result in progressive spinal cord dysfunction secondary to cord compression. Patients are typically male (3: 1 male-to-female ratio), and the average age of presentation is 64 years. The exact incidence is unclear because of differences in terminology and because radiographic findings can be present in asymptomatic individuals. Common examination findings include neck pain or stiffness, a wide-based ataxic gait, ascending paresthesia in the upper or lower extremities, lower extremity weakness, decreased hand dexterity, hyperreflexia, clonus, Babinski sign, and bowel or bladder dysfunction in severe disease. Definitive diagnosis requires correlation of physical examination findings with imaging findings. Magnetic resonance imaging of the cervical spine with and without contrast media is the preferred imaging modality. Cervical spine computed tomography, computed tomography myelography, and plain radiography are helpful in certain situations. Treatment depends on the presence and severity of symptoms. Surgery is recommended for patients with moderate to severe symptoms or rapidly progressive disease. Conservative treatments with monitoring for progression may be considered in patients with mild to moderate disease. The evidence for the effectiveness of conservative treatments is scarce and of low quality, and outcomes can vary with individual patients. Primary care physicians play a vital role in recognizing the typical presentation of degenerative cervical myelopathy, coordinating treatment as indicated, and managing comorbidities.

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cervical Vertebrae / pathology*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Family Practice / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neck Pain / etiology
  • Spinal Cord Compression / diagnosis*
  • Spinal Cord Compression / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Spinal Cord Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • Spondylosis / diagnosis*
  • Spondylosis / diagnostic imaging