Upper Neck Disorders and the Cervical Spine

This overview of upper neck disorders can help you understand conditions your doctor may call craniocervical or craniovertebral junction abnormalities.

Your doctor may call your head and upper neck condition a craniovertebral junction abnormality or a craniocervical disorder (cranio means “skull” and cervical means “neck”). These names refer to the same group of conditions that occur at the base of the skull and the beginning of the spine.

This article provides an overview of upper cervical disorders, with links that connect you to deeper learning about specific aspects of these conditions.
Woman holding her upper neck area in two different places.What Are Upper Cervical Disorders?
Craniovertebral junction (CVJ) disorders involve the bones at the meeting place of the head and neck. You can read more about this area of your body in Anatomy of the Head and Upper Neck.

Numerous bone abnormalities can occur in a CVJ disorder. In some cases, the bones are fused together. In others, the bones are not formed properly or not fully developed. Or, the bones at the base of the skull and beginning of the spine may be fully or partially out of alignment.

CVJ disorders range greatly in symptoms and severity. An abnormality may be asymptomatic (without symptoms) and discovered incidentally. Some people with these abnormalities only have neck pain and headache, while others experience debilitating neurological symptoms, such as paralysis and impaired vision. The most severe symptoms occur when bone abnormalities put pressure on the spinal cord and other key nerve structures.

Causes of Upper Neck Disorders
You may be born with a CVJ disorder (also called a congenital CVJ disorder), or you could develop it later in life from an injury or disease (referred to an acquired disorder).

For more in-depth information on the causes and related conditions of upper cervical disorders, read Congenital Upper Cervical Disorders and Acquired Upper Cervical Disorders.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Head and Upper Neck Disorders
Early diagnosis is always important regardless of the condition, but it is particularly important with upper cervical disorders because starting treatment early can reverse or completely prevent some of the more disabling effects of these conditions.

Your doctor may diagnose you with an upper cervical disorder based on your symptoms coupled with the results of an imaging scan, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). You can learn more about this process in Diagnosing Upper Cervical Disorders.

Your doctor will likely begin with a non-surgical course of treatment before moving to more invasive measures. If non-surgical treatments aren’t effective, your doctor may recommend spine surgery to reduce nerve pressure and/or stabilize the spine. You can read about the procedures your doctor may recommend in Spine Surgery for Upper Cervical Disorders.

Head and Upper Neck Disorders: A Healthy Outlook
Early diagnosis and treatment can help you successfully manage your CVJ disorder—and it can even help prevent some of the most life-altering symptoms. Often, your doctor has numerous treatment options to choose from, and many don’t require surgery. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of each treatment, and what you should realistically expect in terms of recovery. Being an active, informed participant in your care may brighten your outlook during your treatment journey—and may even improve your outcome.

Updated on: 10/05/17
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Upper Cervical Spine Disorders: Anatomy of the Head and Upper Neck
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Upper Cervical Spine Disorders: Anatomy of the Head and Upper Neck

Head and upper neck disorders may be called craniovertebral or craniocervical junction abnormalities (CVJ). This information can help you understand key anatomical structures in the skull and spine.
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