The Utility of Flexion-Extension Radiographs in Degenerative Cervical Spondylolisthesis

Andrew P Alvarez, Amanda Anderson, Saifal-Deen Farhan, Young Lu, Yu-Po Lee, Michael Oh, Charles Rosen, Douglas Kiester, Nitin Bhatia
Clinical Spine Surgery 2022 March 10

STUDY DESIGN: Retrospective radiologic analysis.

OBJECTIVE: The aim was to investigate if lateral flexion-extension radiographs identify additional cases of degenerative cervical spondylolisthesis (DCS) that would be missed by obtaining solely neutral upright radiographs, and determine the reliability of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in diagnosis.

SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA: DCS and instability can be a cause of neck pain, radiculopathy, and even myelopathy. Standard anteroposterior and lateral radiographs and MRI of the cervical spine will identify most cervical spine pathology, but spondylolisthesis and instability are dynamic issues. Standard imaging may also miss DCS in some cases.

METHODS: We compared the number of patients who demonstrated cervical spondylolisthesis on lateral neutral and flexion-extension radiographs in addition to MRI. We used established criteria to define instability as ≥2 mm of listhesis on neutral imaging, and ≥1 mm of motion between flexion-extension radiographs.

RESULTS: A total of 111 patients (555 cervical levels) were analyzed. In all, 41 patients (36.9%) demonstrated cervical spondylolisthesis on neutral and/or flexion-extension radiographs. Of the 77 levels of spondylolisthesis, 17 (22.1%) were missed on neutral radiographs (P,0.05). Twenty levels (26.0%) were missed when flexion-extension radiographs were used alone (P=0.02). Twenty-nine levels (37.7%) of DCS identified on radiograph were missed by MRI (P=0.004).

CONCLUSIONS: Lateral flexion-extension views can be useful in the diagnosis of DCS. These views provide value by identifying a significant cohort of patients that would be undiagnosed based on neutral radiographs alone. Moreover, MRI missed 38% of DCS cases identified by radiographs. Therefore, lateral radiographs can be a useful adjunct to neutral radiographs and MRI when instability is suspected or if these imaging modalities are unable to identify the source of a patient's neck or arm pain.

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