How is Atlanto-axial Instability Identified?
Screening for atlanto-axial instability involves both x-rays and physical examination. The physical examination looks for any changes that might suggest pressure on the spinal cord. X-rays of the head and neck are taken from the side (lateral view) with the head in a normal position as well as with the head bent forward (flexed) and tilted back (extended).
A space between parts of the first and second cervical vertebrae (atlantodens space) of more than 5 millimeters is considered suggestive of atlanto-axial instability.
How Often Does Atlanto-axial Instability Occur?
85% of individuals with Down syndrome have evidence of atlanto-axial instability.
13-14% show evidence of instability by x-ray only and have no symptoms. This is called asymptomatic atlanto-axial instability.
Only 1-2% have symptoms that may require treatment. These individuals are referred to as having symptomatic atlanto-axial instability. Symptoms may include neck pain or persistent head tilt, intermittent or progressive weakness, changes in gait pattern or loss of motor skills, loss of bowel or bladder control, increased muscle tone in the legs, or changes in sensation in the hands and feet.
What Should Be Done?
Any child with symptoms that might be caused by pressure in the spinal cord should be examined and x-rayed IMMEDIATELY.
Most physicians who are knowledgeable about children with Down syndrome recommend that all children with Down syndrome be screened with x-rays during the preschool years. Screening before age 2 or 2½ may be confusing because the bony structures may not show up clearly.
If x-ray evidence of instability is found but the individual has no signs or symptoms of spinal cord pressure after careful examination by his/her physician, no special treatment is needed. The 13-14% of individuals who have asymptomatic atlanto-axial instability require no special medical or surgical treatment.
However, these individuals may want to avoid activities that may put extra strain on the neck. High risk activities include gymnastics (especially tumbling and trampoline), diving, swimming the butterfly stroke, high jump, soccer, and collision sports (such as football).
Individuals with asymptomatic AAI should have more frequent medical and x-ray follow-up.
For the 1-2% of individuals with symptomatic atlanto-axial instability, surgical stabilization of the vertebrae is necessary. Such surgery should be performed by a neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon who is familiar with Down syndrome and who has experience treating atlanto-axial instability.
Re-screening of the 85% of children with Down syndrome who have normal x-rays and no symptoms is a matter of debate. However, since there have been reports of such individuals who were later found to have AAI, a common recommendation is to re-screen once each decade.
All individuals should be screened before surgery that will involve the use of a breathing tube since there have been rare reports of neck injury during placement of the breathing tube.
|Revised: December 26, 2005.|