Signs and Symptoms of Upper Cervical Disorders

Spinal cord compression leads to the most serious symptoms

There are many types of head and upper neck disorders (also known as upper cervical disorders, craniovertebral junction (CVJ) abnormalities, and craniocervical disorders). Some are congenital (present at birth), while others are acquired (develop later in life). Whether congenital or acquired, they can share many of the same signs and symptoms.

Woman holding her neck and foreheadPeople with a craniocervical disorder often experience neck pain and headache together. Photo Source:

Neck Pain and Headache: The Most Common Upper Cervical Disorder Symptoms

Given that upper cervical disorders occur at the meeting place of your skull and spine, it’s no surprise that neck pain and headache in the back of the head are the most common symptoms.

People with a craniocervical disorder often experience neck pain and headache together—and both symptoms tend to worsen with movement in the head and neck. Coughing, for example, can cause a spike in pain. Neck pain can also spread to the arms if spinal nerves are compressed.

Symptoms Indicating Spinal Cord Compression

Some of the most complex cases of upper cervical disorders involve spinal cord compression. Whenever your spinal cord is compressed, nerve-related problems can occur that make functioning in daily life a challenge.

If your condition has caused some level of spinal cord compression, you may experience an array of neurological symptoms, including:

  • Weakness in your arms and/or legs
  • A loss of awareness of your limbs (this is called position sense)
  • A feeling of electric-like pain or tingling shooting down your spine and into your legs after bending your neck forward (this is called Lhermitte sign)
  • Reduced sensations of heat and cold in your hands and/or feet
  • Reduced pain sensation

Other Signs and Symptoms of Craniocervical Disorder

While neck pain and headache are virtually ubiquitous across all upper cervical abnormalities, some disorders carry their own specific set of signs and symptoms.

Change in neck appearance and reduced range of motion
Some abnormalities, such as basilar invagination, platybasia, and Klippel-Feil malformation, can cause physical changes in your neck. Your neck may appear short, webbed, or twisted. There may also be limited ability to move your neck.

Symptoms caused by brain and cranial nerve pressure
Some conditions, such as platybasia, basilar invagination, and craniocervical tumors, can put pressure on your brain stem and surrounding cranial nerves. When this occurs, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Eye problems, such as abnormal eye movements and double vision
  • Throat and speech abnormalities, such as voice hoarseness, slurred speech, and problems swallowing
  • Loss of coordination
  • Sleep problems, namely sleep apnea

Vertigo, feeling faint
Rarely, some people with upper cervical disorders may experience a set of symptoms called vertebrobasilar ischemia, which occurs when a change in head position puts pressure on cranial arteries and cuts off the blood supply to the head. This results in weakness, confusion, light-headedness, and feeling faint. You may also experience vertigo—a spinning sensation.

People with Chiari malformation may develop syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cyst called a syrinx that forms within the spinal cord. If the syrinx grows, it can damage your spinal cord and cause painful neurological symptoms throughout the body, including weakness and numbness. In severe cases, you may lose your ability to feel heat or cold in your neck, hands, and throughout your spine. The muscles in your hands may even become paralyzed.

Preserving Quality of Life with Upper Cervical Disorder Symptoms

While some people have no signs or symptoms associated with their craniocervical disorder, others experience significant pain and neurological dysfunction that can take a major toll on their quality of life. Fortunately, treatment options can help you successfully manage—even eliminate—your symptoms. You can learn more about common treatments for head and upper neck conditions in Non-Surgical Treatments for Upper Cervical Disorders and Surgery for Upper Cervical Disorders.

Updated on: 04/09/19
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