Edited by B.Davies
We don’t really know what symptoms a “typical” patient with myelopathy has.
In fact, the huge number of often quite subtle and non-specific symptoms is probably one of the main reasons why early diagnosis is so challenging (Davies et al., 2018).
When medical students prepare for exams they tend to learn stereotypical descriptions of conditions. For myelopathy, this might be a patient with walking problems and clumsy hands.
However, increasingly symptoms that one might never consider could be linked with myelopathy are emerging from the shadows.
Depressed or anxious mood is one such symptom (Stoffman et al., 2005).
In recent years we have realised that myelopathy patients suffer from high levels of depressed or anxious mood and that this often improves after spinal surgery. But we have had little understanding of why this is the case.
A recent study from Japan has provided a little more insight (Sawada et al., 2018). The Japanese team studied the activity levels of various sites in the brain in myelopathy patients before and after surgery. They also studied individuals without myelopathy as a control group for comparison.
To do this, the team asked participants to do a simple finger-tapping exercise whilst they observed activity levels in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The team found that before surgery individuals in the myelopathy group had a significantly higher activation in an area of the brain called the supplementary motor area compared to individuals in the group without myelopathy.
Next the team found that activation of brain areas, including the anterior cingulate cortex, the supplementary motor area and the thalamus significantly correlated with depression. This meant that the greater a patient’s depression, the greater the activation they had in these brain areas.
Finally, the team found that both depression and activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and supplementary motor area decreased following surgery for myelopathy.
The team argue that up to now surgeons have focussed on the “typical” symptoms such as the clumsy hands and walking problems when deciding whether to operate. They believe that their work may lead to future surgical decisions taking more account of the psychological symptoms too!
Davies, B.M., Mowforth, O.D., Smith, E.K., and Kotter, M.R. (2018). Degenerative cervical myelopathy. BMJ 360, k186.
Sawada, M., Nakae, T., Munemitsu, T., and Hojo, M. (2018). Cortical Reorganizations for Recovery from Depressive State After Spinal Decompression Surgery. World Neurosurg. 112, e632–e639.
Stoffman, M.R., Roberts, M.S., and King, J.T. (2005). Cervical spondylotic myelopathy, depression, and anxiety: a cohort analysis of 89 patients. Neurosurgery 57, 307–313; discussion 307-313.