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Cervical spine complications after treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma

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Radiotherapy has been the mainstay treatment for nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) and has achieved good disease control. However, irradiation is associated with potential complications such as osteoradionecrosis (ORN) and infection. There is sparse description in the literature of such complications and how they are best managed. The objectives of the study are: (1) to describe the complications at the cervical spine after surgical and radiotherapy treatment for NPC (2) to identify key principles in the diagnosis and treatment of these complications.


A retrospective review of all patients with cervical spine complications after radiation treatment and surgery for NPC treated in a tertiary referral center, since 1990.


Fourteen patients with cervical spine ORN and infections were found with an average duration to diagnosis of 8.6 years. All 14 patients had mucosal and deep biopsies and none had tumor recurrence. Four patients had ORN, eight had osteomyelitis and two patients had both ORN and osteomyelitis.


Radiotherapy complications usually have delayed and subtle presentations. ORN progresses slowly and can often be treated conservatively. Infections should be treated aggressively with surgical debridement and the results are generally good. Patients should be regularly followed-up with transoral examination to assess the integrity of the posterior pharyngeal wall and imaging to assess for ORN. Pharyngeal defects raise concern for cervical spine infections. Coverage of pharyngeal defects in these patients is important to prevent recurrent infection.

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Correspondence to Keith Dip-Kei Luk.

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Cheung, J.PY., Wei, W.I. & Luk, K.DK. Cervical spine complications after treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Eur Spine J 22, 584–592 (2013).

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