How is plain radiography used in the workup of cervical radiculopathy?

Updated: Oct 08, 2018
  • Author: Gerard A Malanga, MD; Chief Editor: Sherwin SW Ho, MD  more...
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  • Plain radiography

    • Radiography of the cervical spine is usually the first diagnostic test ordered in patients who present with neck and limb symptoms, and more often than not, this study is diagnostic of cervical disc disease as the cause of the radiculopathy. The American College of Radiology recommends plain radiographs as the most appropriate initial study in all patients with chronic neck pain. [24] Lateral, anteroposterior, and oblique views should be ordered.

    • On the lateral view, look for disc-space narrowing, comparing the level above and below. Typically, the cervical disc spaces get larger from C2-C6, with C5-C6 being the widest disc space in normal necks, and C6-C7 slightly narrower. Besides narrowing, look for subchondral sclerosis and osteophyte formation.

    • On oblique views, look for foraminal stenosis at the level of the suspected radiculopathy, comparing it with the opposite foramina, if uninvolved. For example, in a patient with pain or sensory changes along the right C6 nerve distribution, look for narrowing of the right C5-C6 neural foramina as compared with the left side.

    • An open-mouth view should be ordered only to rule out injury to the atlantoaxial joint when significant acute trauma has occurred. Visualizing all 7 cervical vertebrae is very important. If C7 can not be properly seen, then a "swimmer's view" (supine oblique view, in which the patient's arm is extended over the head) or a computed tomography (CT) scan should be obtained for better visualization of the C7 and T1 segments.

    • The atlantodens interval (ADI) is the distance from the posterior aspect of the anterior C1 arch and the odontoid process. This interval should be less than 3 mm in adults and less than 4 mm in children. An increase in the ADI suggests atlantoaxial instability, such as from trauma or rheumatoid arthritis. Flexion and extension views can be helpful in assessing spinal mobility and stability in these patients.

    • The clinician should be aware of the limitations of plain radiographs. Problems with both specificity and sensitivity exist. Correlations of findings on plain radiographs and cadaver dissections have found a 67% correlation between disc-space narrowing and anatomic findings of disc degeneration. However, radiographs identified only 57% of large posterior osteophytes and only 32% of abnormalities of the apophyseal joints that were found on dissection.

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