Non-Surgical Treatments for Upper Cervical Disorders

Spinal traction, bracing and medications are types of conservative treatments often used in combination.

Head and upper neck disorders, which are also known as upper cervical disorders, craniovertebral junction (CVJ) abnormalities, and craniocervical disorders, occur at a critical place in your body, so you may assume that surgery is your only option. While it’s true that surgery may be the sole treatment for some CVJ disorders (such as Chiari malformations), non-surgical methods may be enough to successfully manage your symptoms.

If your CVJ abnormality is causing symptoms but doesn’t warrant surgery, your doctor may recommend non-surgical techniques to address your pain. This article includes information on the most commonly used non-surgical approaches for upper cervical disorders.

Philadelphia collar; neck brace

Spinal Traction and Bracing
Oftentimes, craniocervical disorders put pressure on the spinal cord and brainstem. A technique called traction (which your doctor may call reduction) may effectively relieve pressure on those anatomical structures. For that reason, it’s among the most used non-surgical treatments for upper cervical disorders.

Traction uses a weighted device around your head to change the position of the damaged area in your spine. Your doctor may also manipulate your head in different positions to relieve your nerves.

With traction, parts of the spinal column are pulled in opposite directions to realign the affected area. Traction uses a halo brace that is fixed onto your head and weighted. You may need to wear the traction device for 5 to 6 days before it achieves the desired effect. If your doctor is satisfied with the level of realignment, your neck will then need to be immobilized in a halo vest for up to 12 weeks to preserve the work.

You can learn more about traction in Spinal Traction.

Non-Surgical Treatments for CVJ Disorders Caused by Bone Cancer
Head and upper neck disorders can be caused by bone cancer—chordoma being the most common type. Non-surgical treatments for bone cancer at the base of the skull include radiation therapy and rigid neck bracing.

Medications May Be Appropriate
If your upper cervical disorder is related to Paget’s disease, your treatment may include drug therapy. Your doctor may recommend a bisphosphonate, which is a class of bone-strengthening drugs. Calcitonin is also commonly prescribed to support bone health.

Conservative Therapies Often Used in Combination
Every CVJ abnormality is different. In some cases, it causes zero symptoms and requires no treatment, while another case may be so severe that surgery is the only option. If your condition if causing you pain but isn’t affecting your spinal cord, brain stem, or other key structures, your doctor may recommend a combination of conservative therapies to help manage your pain. These therapies include physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), and neck bracing.

When It’s Time to Talk About Surgery
If traction, bracing, or any other combination of non-surgical therapies aren’t enough to relieve pressure on your spinal cord and restore stability in your head and neck, your doctor may recommend surgery as a next option. You may read more about this treatment in Spine Surgery for Upper Cervical Disorders.

Updated on: 10/02/17
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