Softening of the Spinal Cord

The human spine is designed to be flexible, but not excessively soft. When the backbone softens to the point where blood supply is affected, it’s a condition known as cervical myelomalacia. Specifically, this type of spinal softening affects the upper part of the spinal cord and the neck. A form of the condition called cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM) is the most common cause of spinal cord dysfunction in seniors. There are preventable and non-preventable causes of cervical myelomalacia. Here’s what the trusted Los Angeles spine surgeons at The Spine Institute believe you need to know about the various causes of the condition.

Trauma to the Upper Spine

A possible cause of spinal cord softening that’s not always preventable is sudden trauma, which may be in the form of a sports-related injury or car accident that involves extreme force to the neck and upper spine. Possible ways to minimize the risk of experiencing trauma that may cause cervical myelomalacia include:

  • Wearing a properly adjusted seat belt
  • Paying attention to posture with activities involving upper back/neck movements
  • Wearing well-fitting protective gear while playing sports

Degenerative Spinal Changes

Age-related changes to the spine sometimes contribute to a gradual degeneration of the upper spine. These changes may eventually soften the spine enough to affect blood supply to the spinal cord. This particular cause of cervical myelomalacia isn’t entirely preventable either. However, it is possible to take steps to slow damage from the natural wear and tear that affects the spine by:

  • Eating nutrient-rich foods like green, leafy vegetables, fish, and bright-colored fruits
  • Getting regular exercise to target muscle groups that provide support to the spine
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and smoking

Diagnosis and Treatment

Since many possible conditions can cause neck and upper back pain, cervical myelomalacia affecting the stability of the spine is usually diagnosed with image tests. If the upper spine needs to be seen in greater detail to confirm a diagnosis, a CT scan may be performed with a myelogram (injection of a special dye). Conservative treatments may relieve discomfort to some extent. The goal with non-surgical treatment is to reduce nerve root inflammation and enhance daily functioning. Such efforts may involve:

  • Temporary immobilization of the neck to allow tissues to heal
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Physical therapy
  • Epidural steroid injections

Surgery for Cervical Myelomalacia

Surgery is often necessary to remove bone or disc material that’s contributing to the softening of the spinal cord enough to cause spinal cord dysfunction (myelopathy). Surgery is typically recommended if symptoms continue for 4-6 weeks or more or if related discomfort is becoming progressively worse. Because the front of the neck is often affected by cervical myelomalacia, surgery often involves anterior decompression. Many patients respond well to a minimally invasive outpatient procedure (anterior cervical decompression) that includes the use of bone graft material that solidifies quickly or an implant to stabilize the spine after removal of the bone or disc causing the issue.

If surgery is necessary for cervical myelomalacia, it often takes a month or two to fully recover. However, it’s still important to maintain some degree of movement and do appropriate therapeutic exercises to increase circulation in the affected area and promote tissue healing. In some situations, the condition may be reversible if it’s detected early enough.

If you need surgery due to cervical myelomalacia or another serious spinal condition, reach out to The Spine Institute. We specialize in a wide array of minimally invasive procedures, from XLIF surgery to spinal decompression. Los Angeles residents should call 310-828-7757 today to schedule an in-person evaluation.