CLINICAL FEATURES: A 42-year-old woman had a 3-week history of unilateral suboccipital pain that she related to a sudden twisting of her head and neck that occurred while she was putting sheets of drywall on top of her car. Subsequent examination by a neurologist 2 weeks later was unremarkable, and a tension-type headache was diagnosed. Approximately 10 days later (3 weeks after injury), a single high-velocity upper-cervical manipulation (incorporating slight rotation and full lateral flexion) was performed with no change in her symptom pattern. Two weeks after that, the patient had development of a lateral medullary syndrome (also known as Wallenberg syndrome) after she briefly extended and rotated her upper cervical spine while painting a ceiling.
INTERVENTION AND OUTCOME: The patient was treated with anticoagulant therapy, and the lateral medullary infarct healed without incident. The spinocerebellar and subtle motor symptoms also resolved, but the ipsilateral suboccipital headache and the loss of temperature sensation associated with the spinothalamic tract lesion were still present 9 months later.
CONCLUSION: This case report demonstrates that vigorous manipulation of the upper cervical spine is possible without injuring an already damaged vertebral artery. It is suggested that the line of drive used during the single manipulation, almost pure lateral flexion with slight rotation, was responsible for the apparent innocuous response. Guidelines for the evaluation and management of vertebral artery dissection are reviewed. Because it is currently impossible to identify patients at risk of having a dissected vertebral artery with standard in-office examination procedures, rotational manipulation of the upper cervical spine should be abandoned by all practitioners, and schools should remove such techniques from their curriculums.
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