Reviewed by B.Davies
Humans require many different repair and renewal strategies. At the earliest point in life, we need these pathways to grow and develop but in later life, we use these pathways to recover from disease and injury. For this, our bodies activate a unique type of cell known as a stem cell. Stem cells are a special form of cell, as they can make any cell type in the body, and so can provide building blocks for our organs and tissues.
Over the past 20 years, researchers have been trying to harness the power of stem cells to guide damaged nerves in spinal cord injury (SCI) towards repair, or to grow new nerve cells altogether. By doing so, it is hoped that the damage can be undone, and a more effective treatment can be offered to those living with SCI.
Recently, a Californian group led by Dr.Joseph Ciacci, has released an exciting clinical study where, for the first time in humans, four patients had a special preparation of foetal spinal cord stem cells (called Neuralstem) transplanted directly into their spinal cord at the site of injury. After following the patients’ recovery for over two years, they discovered that 3 of the 4 patients had made some improvements. Two patients recovered sensory and motor function, with a third patient showing an improvement in motor activity. Whilst these changes were measured, it is noted that this did not lead to a change in the patient’s quality of life. Importantly, the researchers also found no concerns about the safety or side effect profile of stem cell transplant.
Strategies to repair the spinal cord are sorely needed, and whilst these findings must be treated with significant caution (as there was no group of patients to compare to and the improvements did not reach statistical significance), they are promising as typically for this group of patients, so far down the line after injury, no improvement would be expected.
Much more work is required before this could lead to real world treatments, and we look forward to follow this story.
Reviewed by. BM Davies
Reason for the Study
Walking impairments are a common feature of cervical myelopathy and can lead to falls. In elderly individuals such falls, even if minor, can lead to injuries, such as broken bones. Broken bones (‘fractures’) are more common as we get older, as aging affects bone strength, including conditions such as osteoporosis. Such fractures generally occur in stereotyped locations such as the wrist, shoulder, hip, and low back and therefore termed ‘fragility fractures’. These secondary injuries are associated with a significant impact on life, including in some cases death. In 2015, a group from the USA showed that 18% of patients with a hip fracture had undiagnosed myelopathy . However the overall rate of fragility fractures (a fall related injury also associated with fragile bones) amongst elderly individuals with cervical myelopathy has not yet been investigated 
How was this study done?
This study was conducted by searching a database of Medicare patients (meaning previously collected anonymous medical data from individuals in the United States age 65+). This study included 24,439 patients with cervical myelopathy who had undergone surgery, 35,893 patients with cervical myelopathy who had not undergone surgery, and 831,532 patients without myelopathy who had a general medical appointment during the study timeframe of 2008-2011.
For this study, the researchers excluded patients who might confuse the data (e.g. those who had a neck surgery unrelated to cervical myelopathy or history of cancer, infection, or trauma to the spine, but also those with a history of fragility fractures). The researchers then tracked the occurrence of fractures over the next 3 years and used statistical tests to account for differences in study groups which could influence the results (e.g. age, sex or diagnosis of osteoporosis).
What did they find?
There were some differences in the characteristics of the study groups:
At 12 months follow up, both non-operative and surgical cervical myelopathy groups were more likely to sustain fragility fractures than controls. The odds ratios were 1.59 and 1.48 respectively (odds ratios indicate relative odds of a diagnosis or injury with a value closer to 1 indicating no difference). Further, the odds of fracture were higher in both groups than controls at 36 months as well, however, at 36 months the surgical group was lower than the non-operative group.
Why is this important?
There are some limitations to this study; first, because this was a search of a Medicare database it is most applicable to patients with cervical myelopathy 65 and older, but also due to the type of data recorded, there are some possible factors related to falls the researchers were unable to account for such as BMI or physical activity.
However, this is an extremely large study which gives us confidence the results are real, and not simply a coincidence.
Hopefully these findings will help to raise the profile of myelopathy; as 1) the impact and cost of fragility fractures is significant for healthcare providers, 2) myelopathy is not routinely considered as part of managing a patient’s falls risk and 3) falls assessments are carried out by general professionals.
Whilst surgery did not eliminate the risk of fragility fractures, they were reduced in those that had surgery. It would appear from the characteristics of the study groups, that age and ill-health were more likely to lead to conservative management of cervical myelopathy and whether or not this is appropriate, given the potential significance of fragility fractures will need further investigation.
 Radcliff et al (2015). High Incidence of Undiagnosed Cervical Myelopathy in Patients with Hip Fracture Compared to Controls. Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma. http://doi.org/10.1097/BOT.0000000000000485
 Horowitz JA, et al (2018). Fragility Fracture Risk in Elderly Patients with Cervical Myelopathy. Spine.
(3) Can Cervical Myelopathy cause hip fractures
We are very happy to welcome Frank Dutton to our team,Frank was diagnosed with cervical myelopathy in 2015 and is currently leading our fundraising efforts as a Charity Ambassador.If you have any fundraising ideas or want to raise money for our cause you can email Frank directly at the bottom of the page.
Frank's Background Story
My whole life was driven by sport, mainly encouraged by my Granddad, and I played both football and Ice-hockey at an early age, the latter for a living. A severe knee injury forced me to hang my boots up but I continued being involved in sport only this time I took on the role of a goalkeeping coach in football, working with all age groups in both Milton Keynes and Bedford. An innocuous dive for a ball during a coaching session on the 27th September 2008 was to change my life drastically. I landed awkwardly on my arm and the elbow dug into my lower abdomen. A few hours later I was rushed into A&E and despite breaking bones and tearing ligaments during my career this was at a level I had never truly experienced before.
Roughly a year and half later I was referred to Addenbrookes hospital pain management team, and they diagnosed I had torn a stomach muscle, for the second time in my life, but had also damaged nerve endings and I was now suffering from Chronic Pain Syndrome and due to the damage done to my nerve endings, I would probably suffer from that for the rest of my life. To go from being so physically active to not being able to move without causing any pain was very hard to accept and then having to endure things such as having to be pushed around in a wheelchair where I had become so weak was tough and mentally I have constantly struggled to come to terms with it. Thankfully my partner Lucy has helped me to learn to deal with these emotions and in 2010 she encouraged me to enrol on an Access Course at Bedford College with a view to going to University and begin training as a Primary School Teacher. For someone who had left school with no qualifications to speak of, and to go to college was really scary but I enjoyed my time there, and I even wrote an article for the college paper about being a mature student struggling with a disability. I passed the course with merits and distinctions and gained a triple distinction for my final dissertation. I was speechless at how well things had gone and I was even more amazed when the University of Bedfordshire accepted me onto their Early Years Education, 3 year BA Hons degree. Whilst at Uni I knew the typical student nightlife was never going to be an option however I wanted to get involved as much as I could and so I became a Course Rep, a PAL leader during my 2nd and 3rd years, which involved helping first year students negotiate their first two terms on campus, and I also volunteered as a Student Ambassador, which involved helping out on Open Days showing prospective students around the campus and giving talks both on campus and in local colleges and schools about my experiences of being a student as well. This all helped me to gain confidence in myself and I found myself being asked to become a mentor to disabled students who were finding it difficult to adjust to university life. As I had done at college, I also found myself writing an article for the university magazine about how I’d gone from playing hockey to being a student wanting to work with children. My health continued to make things difficult but the university were superb and with an added year I eventually graduated in the July of 2015. Despite the issues I had endured, I enrolled onto the PGCE course to gain my teachers qualification. My health unfortunately took a turn for the worse, and I began to have constant tingling in my left arm and I had started to pass out with an alarming frequency.
Eventually I had to accept things were not getting better and I withdrew from the course on the 17th November which was one of the lowest points in my life. In January 2016 I applied for a job at the university working with the Dean of Student Experience and was offered the job on a 6 month contract. The role meant talking to students and finding out what issues they had experienced as well as contacting other universities to see what things they were initiating to get students involved more. During my time in this role I was instrumental in the starting of a student society called PAMMS, which was for parents and mature students, a student group I felt were regularly missed during student life and events. I was still passing out regularly and in late May 2016 that problem eventually caught up with me. I was in the garden playing with my dogs when I passed out, and upon coming round I was surrounded by broken wood and a concerned dog licking my face, it became clear I had gone through a small garden table and had badly bruised my left arm. A trip to A&E showed I hadn’t broken any bones but my arm was still extremely sore and had swollen quite alarmingly. The arm continued to swell and a few days later the whole forearm was black with bruising and was so painful I couldn’t bear anything touching my arm, leading to another trip up to A&E. A succession of specialists and nurses took it in turns to look at my arm and I was eventually taken to a ward before having surgery to repair the Compartment Syndrome which I was now suffering from. A CT and an MRI scan back in February of 2016 had already shown I had issues with 5 discs in my neck and that these were pressing on my spinal cord. In the August 2016 after seeing the neurology department at Cambridge hospital I had an ACDF to repair my C4/5 discs, however the surgeon stated I would need further surgery to repair the other levels. Another knock to my left hand caused my arm to swell again, and another trip to A&E led to me being rushed to surgery in late November 2016 to repair a second Compartment Syndrome, this time on the inner half of my left arm. I have been left with two 7* inch long scars on my left arm, and I was still continuing to pass out on a regular basis, and a further MRI scan in March of 2017 showed the discs in the neck had got worse and I needed major surgery to repair things. Lucy and I got married in late July and enjoyed a superb Honeymoon in Wales later on in September. My surgery was scheduled for 11th December and unfortunately was postponed three times, however, I reported to Addenbrookes on the 24th January 2018 for surgery the day after.
My surgery was to be a posterior fusion from C2-T1 with a laminectomy of C3/4/5. Due to the issues with the arm I had been diagnosed with an Acquired Severe Bleeding Disorder and thus needed platelets and other blood cultures to try to ensure there were no complications during the surgery. Trust me to make it a problem as an issue with controlling the bleeding along with the intricate metal work being inserted into my neck meant I was in theatre for just over 8 hours before being taken to critical care to begin the recovery.
I woke up and to be honest for the first 36 hours I felt pretty good, I think the copious amounts of Ketamine and morphine being pumped into my body may have had something to do with it. Lucy came to visit the day after surgery and couldn’t believe how coherent I was and in how little pain I appeared to be, this would definitely not be the case the day after, once I had been transferred to a Neuro ward and the Ketamine had worn off. I felt like I had been hit by a train and any movement sent fresh waves down my neck and back, and I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable the neck brace was either, even a morphine pump struggled to keep up with the need for pain relief as my body tried to cope with what had just happened. Over the next two weeks I gradually recovered and was allowed home, with the knowledge I had to keep the brace on for 24 hours a day and I would be seen in around 3 months time. The recovery process at home was hampered by an issue with sciatica which prevented me from laying in a reclined position in my bed forcing me to spend the first three months after the surgery sleeping on my sofa. This was really difficult to cope with but Lucy kept me going and I made sure the sympathy mode was kept up with wine gums and jelly babies being to the fore of my food intake. Lucy was able to take me out for a coffee on the odd occasion and my pain levels slowly reduced although even now 6 months down the line I am still having issues with the pain in the surgery site as the muscles begin to knit back together. My Chronic Pain has obviously not helped and has at times left me reaching for the oramorph as the pain relief I am already on had not controlled things. I have good and bad days and occasionally I have a very bad day which leaves me barely able to move. On a plus side I am no longer passing out 3-4 times a day, which when you think about it, I have been passing out for nearly 18 months, so at a best guess, I’ve zonked out over a 1,000 times.
I am now well on the road to recovery and despite still having issues with my shoulders and trying to get used to having a limited range of movement in my neck, having the surgery was worth it and indeed was necessary. My surgery was for prevention rather than cure and I know that whilst I wont ever score the winning goal in a Stanley Cup Final, I’m now looking forward to the future with confidence and this role is the perfect opportunity for me to continue with my recovery and make the most of the superb work done by my surgeon Dr Mark Kotter. It was Mark that explained myelopathy to me before I had my surgery and told me about the Facebook support group which I subsequently joined and that has been such a great support to myself and my wife. It has also helped me understand my condition more with the information available and accounts from others who suffer this tough condition. When the group got the great news it was becoming a charity I really felt I wanted to be involved and to help spread he awareness of this condition and to raise funds. After speaking to the team I have been given the great opportunity to become the charity Ambassador for Myelopathy.org and hope that I can help to spread the word and begin to help people to understand the condition and thus give support to both sufferers and their loved ones.
By Timothy Boerger
Edited by Benjamin Davies
Research Summary on MRI Methods for Predicting Functional Recovery from Surgery in Patients with Cervical Myelopathy.
Rao A et al., Diffusion Tensor Imaging in a Large Longitudinal Series of Patients With Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy Correlated With Long-Term Functional Outcome. Neurosurgery. Epub ahead of print Feb 23, 2018
Reason for the study
Currently, the assessment of the impact of cervical myelopathy is based largely on patient reported symptoms and commonly quantified using an assessment scale called the mJOA. Patient reported symptoms are very important to take into account when discussing disease severity and function, but imaging measures which explain symptoms are also helpful. Currently there has been limited success in developing imaging measures which explain symptoms and, perhaps more importantly, predict future symptoms and potential recovery following surgery. This last part will be especially important for patients and surgeons determining who will benefit from surgery.
This study examined a different magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique than normal, called diffusion tensor imaging. This technique quantifies how water naturally flows (diffuses). The specific measure they chose (fractional anisotropy) measures the degree to which water flows in a single direction on a scale of 0 to 1 with values closer to 1 indicating diffusion more strongly in 1 direction. In axons of the spinal cord, for example, it would be expected that water would flow consistently along the path of axons rather than perpendicular to the axons. If a group had a worse score, however, it might indicate that they had damage to the neurons allowing water to move more freely. So, the purpose of this study to use fractional anisotropy as a measure of integrity of neurons in the spinal cord and see if this correlated with function pre-surgically and change in function following surgery.
This study enrolled patients who were diagnosed with cervical myelopathy over a 5 year period (age range 33 – 81, 18 male, 26 female) and followed these patients for 2 years following surgery. They took their MRI scans and determined mJOA score pre-operatively. For this study they focused their imaging analysis at the spinal level with the greatest compression of the spinal cord. For this analysis they included the whole cord except for the border around the cord because the data they could gain from this area might be incorrect due to the surrounding cerebrospinal fluid. They then compared the MRI scans (fractional anisotropy) and mJOA pre-operatively, and 6-, 12-, and 24-months after surgery. They also compared fractional anisotropy values to those from a group of healthy control participants.
As expected fractional anisotropy (the MRI measure of neuron integrity) was lower in patients with cervical myelopathy than controls. It was also associated with the severity of myelopathy before surgery, as assessed by the mJOA (a measure of patient function).
Also, fractional anisotropy inversely predicted change in mJOA score at 12 months, but was less strongly predictive of change in mJOA at 6 and 24 months. Baseline mJOA also was inversely predictive of change in mJOA at 12 months. This means that in this study, those participants with lower fractional anisotropy (neural integrity) or mJOA (function) scores pre-operatively improved the most following surgery.
Why is this important?
At present, we are unable to predict accurately the response to surgery, and therefore markers which help this will be useful for doctors and patients. Whilst fractional anisotropy, has been investigated before previous studies using this technique were less successful in drawing a relationship with function. This may be due to improving the methods of collecting and analyzing the MRI data.
The identified relationship between baseline mJOA and change in mJOA with surgery are therefore promising, but require further research to understand the meaning for patients; for example it is recognized that patients with greater disability typically do improve more as measured by the mJOA, but that does not mean that they achieve a better functional outcome.The mJOA is not a linear scale, where each point gain is equally as important as the next.
We look forward to watching our understanding of Fractional Anisotropy improve and if it can be of benefit to doctors and patients.
Swelling is a common reaction of your body to any form of injury; remember the last time you banged your finger, or perhaps twisted your ankle? So unsurprisingly, it can happen to the spinal cord and has been reported in patients with CSM. However, it is not present in all patients and its significance is not certain. In addition to this, some studies have now described that the spinal cord can swell after surgery. The reason for this is unclear and equally what it means for patients is not clear.
On basic MRI imaging, swelling is not that easy to detect; a doctor may look for a slight enlargement of the spinal cord or some signal change. An alternative method is to inject a ‘contrast agent’ into the patient during the scan. This is a special form of dye which highlights certain processes, and can be a indicator of swelling amongst other things. We call this ‘highlighting’ enhancement.
On this basis, a group from Japan have been looking at spinal cord swelling using contrast and what it means for patients.
What did the study measure?
The team from Japan performed ‘contrast MRI’ scans on patients with CSM due to undergo and operation, before and after their surgery. They then compared what happened to patients who had enhancement and those that did not have enhancement.
What were the results?
In the study they found that those with preoperative enhancement were more likely to have developed swelling at 1 month after the operation and the swelling was more likely to persist until 1 year post operation. Those who developed swelling had poorer outcomes as assed by a scoring system called the JOA that looks at movement skills as well as sensory loss (problems with feeling).
What does this mean for those affected?
This sort of MRI imaging is not normally performed during the work up for CSM, but the potential to offer additional information into the severity of the disease and how patients are likely to respond to surgery would be helpful to doctors and sufferers alike.
It is worth noting that the injection of dye can be harmful to some people, although this is uncommon.
Therefore, for this technique to be adopted, healthcare providers are likely to need further information, such as:
Ozawa et al. Spinal Cord Swelling After Surgery in Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy: Relationship With Intramedullary Gd-DTPA Enhancement on MRI. Clin Spine Surg. 2018 May 31. doi: 10.1097/BSD.0000000000000664
Cho et al. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3229731/
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