Central cord syndrome (CCS) is a neurological syndrome caused by an injury to the center of the spinal cord, affecting the spinothalamic tracts ((STTs) sensory) and medial aspect of the corticospinal tracts ((CSTs) motor).
- Most common form of incomplete spinal cord injury
- Prevalence: approximately 9% of those with traumatic spinal cord injury
- Men are more commonly affected.
- Young patients: usually due to trauma (e.g., automobile accidents)
- Older patients (> 65 years): usually caused by neck hyperextension combined with underlying spinal disease (e.g., osteoarthritis)
- Blunt trauma (most common)
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Falls from a significant height
- Penetrating trauma due to gunshot or knife injuries
- Syringomyelia (cystic lesion between C2 and T9)
- Chiari malformation type I
- Klippel-Feil syndrome
- Postinfectious: transverse myelitis
- Inflammatory: multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Medullary tumor → progressive cervical myelopathy with central cord features
- Rarely metastatic disease
- Atlantoaxial (C1–C2) instability (e.g., due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA))
- Spinal arthropathies
- Osteoporosis (compression fractures)
Injury to the vertebral column causes a spinal cord injury related to the force and direction of the traumatic event and the anatomic vulnerability of individual spinal elements.
Causes of spinal cord injury involve 1 or more of the following:
- Vertebral fracture
- Dislocation at 1 or more joints
- Ligamentous tears
- Herniation of the intervertebral disc
A cervical spine hyperextension injury can be related to:
- Fall with neck hyperextended (especially from a significant height, such as a roof)
- High-velocity trauma (e.g., motor vehicle accident)
- Penetrating injuries (e.g., knife or gunshot injuries)
- Cervical spondylosis
Mechanism of injury:
- Spine subluxation and/or fracture →
- Contusion/edema at the site of injury →
- Simultaneous compression of the spinal cord anteriorly (by osteophytes or disc) and posteriorly (by the ligamentum flavum)
Affected areas of the spinal cord by central cord syndrome:
- Medial aspect of the CSTs/ anterior horn gray matter → weakness in the arms > legs
- Axonal disruption in the white matter as the fibers pass from the dorsal to the ventral horn → loss of deep tendon reflexes
- Compression of the STT → sensory deficits
- Both somatic and visceral motor nuclei are affected.
Clinical Presentation and Diagnosis
Understanding the structures affected by a central cord lesion is key to their correlation with clinical signs and symptoms. Diagnosis of CCS is by clinical exam and diagnostic imaging.
- Site of injury: impact with the neck hyperextended
- Types of injuries that cause cervical fractures:
- Blunt trauma from a motor vehicle accident
- Penetrating trauma from gunshot or knife
- Falling trauma: downstairs or from a significant height (e.g., off a roof or a ladder)
- No trauma:
- Syringomyelia or tumor
- Inflammatory/demyelinating (MS)
- Postinfectious inflammation (transverse myelitis)
- Motor deficit: weakness in upper limbs > lower limbs (CST)
- Sensory deficits: Pain and temperature sensation are absent in the distribution of 1 or several adjacent dermatomes but intact further above and below the lesion (spinothalamic fibers disrupted).
- Preserved vibration and position sensation (intact posterior columns)
- No usual bladder symptoms but urinary retention may occur
- Loss of deep tendon reflexes at the level of the spinal cord lesion
- Physical exam as above
- X-rays of the cervical spine may show:
- Vertebral fractures
- Spinal subluxation
- CT: shows impingement of the spinal canal
- MRI: gold standard for evaluating the spinal cord and surrounding soft tissues
- X-rays of the cervical spine may show:
Management and Prognosis
Central cord syndrome has a good prognosis, although factors such as older age and more-severe neurologic injury at presentation are associated with a lower likelihood of neurologic recovery.
- Conservative treatment is the most common.
- With acute severe trauma:
- Treat hypotension due to neurogenic shock.
- High-dose steroids (methylprednisolone) to suppress edema
- Baclofen (muscle relaxant) for spasticity
- PT: for improving strength and range of motion (ROM) of lower extremities
- Occupational therapy: upper limb training
- Improves ability to perform daily activities
- May improve neuropathic pain
- External fixation of the spine: 4–6 weeks
- Up to 75% of patients show some neurological improvement in functionality.
- Considered early on for:
- Spinal instability
- Ongoing spinal cord compression with progressive neurologic deterioration
- Involves procedures such as decompression laminectomy
Complications of CCS
- Autonomic dysreflexia: lack of a coordinated autonomic response with HR and blood pressure in spinal injuries above T6
- Neurogenic bladder
- Functionality depends on the extent of the injury and rehabilitation.
- Most patients recover the ability to walk.
- Cervical fractures prolong recovery time.
- Bladder function usually returns 6–8 months after injury.
- Ventral (anterior) cord syndrome (ACS): an injury to the anterior, or ventral, ⅔ of the spinal cord (or incomplete cord syndrome) that spares the dorsal columns. The syndrome is caused by occlusion of the anterior spinal artery or trauma causing disc herniation and bone fragments that disrupt the spinal cord. Clinical manifestations are loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury. Diagnosis of ACS is by clinical exam and neuroimaging with MRI. Management is directed at resolving the underlying cause.
- Posterior cord syndrome (PCS): an incomplete cord syndrome that affects the posterior aspect of the spinal cord and is characterized by loss of vibration and position senses below the level of injury. As a very rare condition, the status of PCS as a separate clinical entity is still under debate in the literature and can overlap with CCS. Diagnosis is made clinically and supported by neuroimaging. Management can be medical/rehabilitative or surgical if indicated.
- Cruciate paralysis: a rare neurological condition that affects the cervicomedullary junction. The condition presents with bilateral upper limb paresis without the involvement of the lower limbs. The etiologies of cruciate paralysis include traumatic injuries, postsurgical complications, and metabolic disorders. Diagnosis and management are similar to other incomplete cord syndromes.
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