Craniocervical Junction Disorders

What Are Craniocervical Junction Disorders and How Are They Treated?

Some spine disorders happen at the craniocervical junction, a complex area where the skull and upper cervical spine join together. The connection between the brain and the spinal cord is at the base of the brainstem in the craniocervical junction region. Craniocervical junction disorders can weaken the spine and cause neurological injuries.

Some of these disorders may happen at birth, including:

  • Basilar invagination and impression: The top of the vertebrae moves up, causing the opening in the skull (where the spinal cord meets the brain) to narrow and potentially push on the brain stem.
  • Segmentation defects: This condition involves abnormalities of the vertebrae.
  • Atlas assimilation: The first vertebra, or atlas, fuses to the occipital bone before birth.
  • Hypoplasia: This condition involves an absence of parts of the spine and congenital fusions.
  • Developmental and acquired abnormalities: These conditions occur during development and include achondroplastic stenosis, osteogenesis imperfecta and renal rickets.
  • Platybasia: This occurs when the occipital bone at the base of the skull is flattened.
  • Chiari malformation: This occurs when the brain tissue drops into a large opening at the base of the skull.
  • Encephalocele/spina bifida: The incomplete development of the spinal cord or its coverings causes this condition.

Symptoms of a craniocervical junction disorder may include:

  • Neck pain
  • Headache
  • Balance problems
  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Respiratory problems or sleep apnea
  • Motor speech issues such as difficulty articulating
  • Compression of the spinal cord
  • Spasticity
  • Twisted or rotated neck

How is a craniocervical junction disorder treated?

Our specialists at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta work together to determine the best treatment path for each child. Our main goals are to determine the stability of the spine and prevent neurological injury. If the neck is stable, we can use nonsurgical treatments. Our rehabilitation and pain management specialists can provide aggressive therapy to help reduce pain and improve a patient’s quality of life.

Instability in the spine could cause neurological damage. If that is the case, our doctors might perform surgery to strengthen the unstable parts of the spine.