The spine is a sturdy, supple structure that is essential to our functioning as human beings. While each portion of the spine is important, the cervical spine—the vertebral bones of the neck—must provide support to the head and protect the delicate spinal cord fibers that serve the body while maintaining flexibility. You may not think about it, but the cervical spine is an incredibly important and sophisticated structure.
The Cervical Spine is Special
The two topmost vertebrae—the atlas and the axis—have unique, specialized shapes that allow maximum movement of the head atop the neck. The vertebrae in the cervical spine are relatively small, especially compared to vertebrae of the lower portions of the spine. This special shape and small size provide movement while sacrificing support. The spinal bones of the thoracic spine or the lumbar spine, by contrast, are larger and less mobile. The thoracic and lumbar spines provide support while sacrificing movement.
Cervical Spinal Stenosis: The Dangerous Spinal Stenosis
While “pinched” nerves along the spinal column are more common in the lumbar spine, “pinched” nerves in the cervical spine—cervical spinal stenosis—can be much more dangerous. The reason for this increased danger is easy to see. The cervical spine houses virtually every nerve of the spinal cord. If there is a problem in the spinal cord in the cervical spine, it will affect the entire body below the neck. This means a cervical spine injury could cause paralysis of the entire body or even death. While lumber stenosis can be painful and in some cases dangerous, cervical spine stenosis can be life-threatening.
Restoring Function to the Cervical Spine: Cervical Laminectomy
A cervical laminectomy is often the surgical treatment of choice to stabilize the cervical spine. During a cervical laminectomy, the lamina and spinal process of the offending vertebra is removed to allow the spinal cord the space it needs. While removing spinal bone frees the spinal cord from “pinching,” it also makes the cord a bit more vulnerable. Moreover, the neck may be too flexible. Therefore, the spine surgeon will stabilize the area with braces(hardware) and bone grafts. The braces usually include medical-grade rods and screws. The bone graft may come from the patient or synthetic materials may be used. The bone graft will eventually grow to fuse two vertebrae together; somewhat like a broken bone heals together.
Cervical laminectomy does restrict the natural movement and suppleness of the neck. The area, once healed, will not have the same range of movement as a young, healthy person. On the other hand, cervical laminectomy can relieve pain, restore function, and reduce the risk of serious consequences of cervical stenosis, such as paralysis. Cervical laminectomy has the potential to dramatically increase a person’s quality of life and, in some cases, protect it!