Could your clumsiness be an early sign of something more serious?

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For as long as I can remember, my mother has teased me with the nickname "Grace." It's not because I'm graceful. Instead, she's passively pointing out that I'm a bona fide klutz. Tripping over my own feet, bumping into walls, dropping softballs that landed perfectly in the center of my mitt (still haven't lived that one down), paper cutting my eye (twice) - they all contributed to the mocking nickname.

I like to think that we all have a little bit of clumsiness in us, but in a recent chat with Dilip Sengupta, MD, orthopedic spine surgeon on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, I learned that clumsiness can sometimes be an early sign of a number of neurological diseases, particularly a common condition called cervical myelopathy, which can actually lead to paralysis.

Too much pressure on the spine

Years of wear and tear can do a number on your back and neck. Over time, the spinal canal can start to become narrow. In medical speak, this is called stenosis. When stenosis occurs in the lumbar spine, or lower back, it usually affects the spinal nerves, not the spinal cord itself, and you feel pain. But move up to the cervical spine - the part by the neck - and stenosis leads to myelopathy, the compression of the spinal cord.

"Pain is always bothersome," Dr. Sengupta says. "But it doesn't cause harm; it's a protective sense.

"Pressure on the spinal cord, as may be the case in the cervical spine, however, does not cause pain, but it does cause more damage. Bit by bit, the pressure kills the cells in the spinal cord. Any cell within the spinal cord that is dead is dead forever; it never recovers or regenerates. But in the early stages, a number of cells may be numb from the pressure but not quiet dead. That's why it's important to pick up on cervical myelopathy early so we can suggest surgery and relieve that pressure before the damage is done."

Speak up with your doctor

So how do you pick up on cervical myelopathy? You won't feel any pain, Dr. Sengupta says, but you will experience neuropathy (numbness), tingling, and weakness in your limbs.

"Patients often complain of an unstable gait or frequent falls," Dr. Sengupta says. "Unfortunately, this is sometimes misdiagnosed as vertigo, but these can be early signs of paralysis."

You might just have a clumsy moment now and again, but if you're having them more frequently and have any of these other risk factors, it's worth a conversation with your doctor:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Vascular disease
  • Degenerative disease
  • A family or personal health history of bone or back issues
  • Current or past experience in a career or athletics that regularly strained the spine
  • Being born with a narrow spinal canal.

Dr. Sengupta says it's a breath of fresh air when a patient speaks up about these problems. The sooner he knows about the symptoms, the sooner he can order the tests to diagnose spinal compression. From there, a spinal decompression procedure can remove the pressure from the spinal cord.

"The cells within the spinal cord, which are numb but not dead, start healing on their own once pressure is removed," Dr. Sengupta says. "Depending on how early the symptoms are recognized and the state of paralysis once diagnosed, most patients experience a significant improvement within their first six months after surgery."

Start the conversation with your doctor to make sure your "Grace" moments aren't standing in the way of a healthy future.

The Spine Academy at Methodist Mansfield helps give back surgery patients positive outcomes. Giving them a clear lay of the land for before surgery, during their hospital stay, and after they've gone home, the Spine Academy relieves patients' anxiety about surgery and gives them the confidence to recover strongly and get back to their active lifestyles. Learn more by calling 682-242-0462.

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