Postoperative C5 palsy affects 7%–12% of patients who undergo posterior cervical decompression for degenerative cervical spine pathologies. Minimal evidence exists regarding the natural history of expected recovery and variables that affect palsy recovery. The authors investigated pre- and postoperative variables that predict recovery and recovery time among patients with postoperative C5 palsy.
The authors included patients who underwent posterior cervical decompression at a tertiary referral center between 2004 and 2018 and who experienced postoperative C5 palsy. All patients had preoperative MR images and full records, including operative note, postoperative course, and clinical presentation. Kaplan-Meier survival analysis was used to evaluate both times to complete recovery and to new neurological baseline—defined by deltoid strength on manual motor testing of the affected side—as a function of clinical symptoms, surgical maneuvers, and the severity of postoperative deficits.
Seventy-seven patients were included, with an average age of 64 years. The mean follow-up period was 17.7 months. The mean postoperative C5 strength was grade 2.7/5, and the mean time to first motor examination with documented C5 palsy was 3.5 days. Sixteen patients (21%) had bilateral deficits, and 9 (12%) had new-onset biceps weakness; 36% of patients had undergone C4–5 foraminotomy of the affected root, and 17% had presented with radicular pain in the dermatome of the affected root. On univariable analysis, patients’ reporting of numbness or tingling (p = 0.02) and a baseline deficit (p < 0.001) were the only predictors of time to recovery. Patients with grade 4+/5 weakness had significantly shorter times to recovery than patients with grade 4/5 weakness (p = 0.001) or ≤ grade 3/5 weakness (p < 0.001). There was no difference between those with grade 4/5 weakness and those with ≤ grade 3/5 weakness. Patients with postoperative strength < grade 3/5 had a < 50% chance of achieving complete recovery.
The timing and odds of recovery following C5 palsy were best predicted by the magnitude of the postoperative deficit. The use of C4–5 foraminotomy did not predict the time to or likelihood of recovery.