PURPOSE: The craniocervical junction (CCJ) is a complex of bony and ligamentous structure stabilizing CCJ. Nearly one-third of all traumatic injuries to the cervical spine involve the CCJ. Only little literature is available on this topic, and most of the studies are focused on anatomy, biomechanics or ligamentous injury in whiplash-associated disorders. We conducted a prospective study to investigate age-related changes in the craniocervical ligaments.
METHODS: We included asymptomatic volunteers between 16 and 99 years old who had no history of whiplash or other cervical trauma. Volunteers underwent a three-dimensional turbo spin-echo proton density-weighted sequence with variable flip-angle distribution focused on the craniocervical ligaments. The six main ligaments of the craniocervical junction were evaluated for grade of degeneration on a four-point scale by two independent readers, blinded for age and sex.
RESULTS: We included 102 volunteers. The mean age was 50.03 (16-94). Fifty-nine (58%) patients showed degeneration of at least one ligament of the CCJ. High-grade anomalous changes and multiligamentous involvement had a positive correlation with age (p < 0.001). The inter-rater agreement was fair to moderate, and the intra-rater agreement was moderate to substantial.
CONCLUSION: The craniocervical ligaments show a variable degree of signal intensity and thickness in asymptomatic adults. We postulate that these changes can be due to normal aging or due to repetitive microtrauma. We propose a new grading system to evaluate changes to the craniocervical ligaments in asymptomatic volunteers. These slides can be retrieved under Electronic Supplementary Material.