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Klippel-Feil Syndrome: Causes, Classification, Symptoms, Signs, Diagnosis, Treatment

This is a congenital disorder of the cervical spine in which there is fusion of two or more vertebrae. People from Klippel-Feil syndrome tend to have a short neck and their neck motion is significantly restricted. There may also be presence of pain in the neck.

Klippel-Feil Syndrome

What Is Klippel-Feil Syndrome?1

  • Abnormal Bone Fusion- Klippel-Feil Syndrome is a form of a disorder of the bones in which there is abnormal fusion of two or vertebrae of the cervical spine, which is present since birth.
  • Characteristic Features-There are three characteristic features of Klippel-Feil Syndrome. Majority of the affected individuals have at least two of the three features mentioned below. The three characteristics features are as follows-
    1. Short neck
    2. Low hairline behind the neck
    3. Extremely limited range of motion of the cervical spine.
  • Range of Motion- People with Klippel-Feil Syndrome have limited range of motion of the cervical spine due to abnormal fusion of the vertebrae.
  • Radicular Pain- Patient suffers with severe pain. Pain is often caused by pinch nerve at spinal foramina. Because of this abnormal fusion of the vertebrae of the cervical spine, the nerves of the neck or back may also be affected. As the disease progresses, the affected individuals tend to develop spinal stenosis as well compressing and damaging the spinal cord.
  • Motor Nerve Hyperactivity- In rare cases, there may be abnormal uncontrollable movements of the arms as well.
  • Scoliosis- People affected with Klippel-Feil Syndrome also later on in their life develop scoliosis, a medical condition in which there is abnormal curvature of the spine.
  • Visceral Deformity- The syndrome may be associated with multiple visceral diseases involving heart,2 kidneys, skeletal system, vertebral artery anomaly3 and neural tube.
  • Sprengel Deformity- Some affected individuals may also have a condition called Sprengel deformity in which there is poor development of the shoulders resulting in abnormal elevation of the scapula.

What Are The Causes Of Klippel-Feil Syndrome?

Gene Mutation-

  • Klippel-Feil Syndrome is said to be caused due to mutations in genes GDF6 and GDF3.
  • The function of these genes is to instruct cells into making proteins to regulate growth and maturation of the bones and cartilages in the body.
  • The GDF6 protein is required for formation of bones in the limbs, spine, skull, chest, and ribs. While the exact role of the GDF3 protein is unclear, it is also known to be involved in development of bones and cartilages.
  • The mutations of the GDF6 and GDF3 genes result in reduction of functional protein causing Klippel-Feil Syndrome.

What Are Classifications Of Klippel-Feil Syndrome?

Klippel-Feil Syndrome Is Of Three Types As Mentioned Below:

Type I: The first cervical vertebrae is also known as atlas is fused with occipital bone and the condition is known as occipitalization of atlas. Type I is also associated with fusion of C2-C3 vertebra. Severe malformation may result in narrowing of spinal canal and compression of spinal cord and brainstem.

Type II: In this type, there is fusion of the vertebrae below C2 level along with abnormality of the occipitocervical junction.

Type III: In this type, there is a single interspace between two fused segments and the motion of the cervical spine is centered at this solitary open articulation. This can lead to spine instability or osteoarthritis.

What Are The Symptoms Of Klippel-Feil Syndrome?

Asymptomatic Disease-

  • The mild type of disease is often asymptomatic.
  • The diagnosis is incidental when CAT scan or MRI of cervical spine is performed to evaluate other diseases than spine.

Symptomatic Disease-

  • Radicular Pain-
    • Common symptom originates from disc, facet joint or pinch nerve. Pain during early stages originates from paravertebral muscles, disc or facet joint.
    • The abnormal skeletal structure in neck causes disc, facet join or paravertebral muscle pain.
    • During later stage, if disease becomes severe and results in spinal stenosis then patient may describe symptoms suggesting pinch nerve followed by radicular pain.
    • Radicular pain radiates along the nerve pathways in upper extremities.
  • Tingling, Numbness and Weakness-
    • These symptoms suggest either nerve is pinched at the foramina or spinal canal.
    • Patient may complaint of these symptoms in upper extremity suggesting nerve is pinched at the foramina and may be one to three levels are affected.
    • Bilateral symptoms involving upper and lower extremity suggest possible narrowing of spinal canal, also known as spinal stenosis.
    • Spinal stenosis may constrict spinal cord resulting in symptoms in all four extremities.4
  • Shortness of Breath
    • Klippel-Feil Syndrome may be associated with alveolar disease or bronchial hypertrophy resulting in shortness of breath or dyspnea.
  • Palpitation
    • The syndrome may be associated with abnormal cardiac conduction system causing irregular heartbeats and palpitation.

Signs Of Klippel-Feil Syndrome

  • General Examination-
    • Extremely short neck
    • Low hairline behind the back of head
  • Skeletal Examination-
  • Visceral Examination-
    • Kidney Dysfunction- Higher albumin excretion in urine, high BUN or creatinine
    • Respiratory Difficulties- Wheezing
    • Vascular Examination- Vertebral artery anomaly. 3
    • Cardiac Abnormalities- Irregular heart beats and complete heart block.2
    • Gastrointestinal System- Duodenal web and rectal abnormalities were observed with K-F syndrome.5

How Is Klippel-Feil Syndrome Diagnosed?

Urine Examination- Increased albumen in urine and decreased urine volume

Blood Examination- Increased BUN and creatinine

Radiological Studies-

  • X-Ray, MRI and CT Scan-

What Are Treatments For Klippel-Feil Syndrome?

Klippel–Feil Syndrome is usually treated symptomatically.

Medications For Klippel–Feil Syndrome-

Physical Therapy

Interventional Pain Therapy

Surgery For Klippel–Feil Syndrome-

  • Cervical Vertebral Abnormalities-
    • Surgical procedure may also be done to correct craniocervical instability and remove the pressure over the spinal cord.
    • Cervical Disc Arthroplasty is done to correct fusion by using the Bryan Cervical Disc Prosthesis.
    • Total Disc Replacement is an alternative procedure performed to correct foraminal stenosis. Procedure virtually eliminates the pain and discomfort.
    • When Arthroplasty does not provide total relief then as a last measure arthrodesis procedure is done for pain relief from Klippel-Feil Syndrome.
  • Scoliosis-
    • The corrective procedure is performed if patient has advanced symptoms suggesting numbness and weakness in upper and lower extremities.
    • Surgical procedures may also include spinal surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.


1. The multiple associations of Klippel-Feil syndrome.

Jasper A1, Sudhakar SV, Sridhar GV.

Acta Neurol Belg. 2014 Jun 21.

2. Congenital complete heart block in Klippel-Feil syndrome.

Elumalai RS1, Nainar MS, Vaidyanathan K, Somasundaram G, Balasubramaniam G.

Asian Cardiovasc Thorac Ann. 2013 Apr;21(2):199-201.

3. Klippel-Feil syndrome with atlanto-axial dislocation, anomalous vertebral artery, dextrocardia and situs inversus.

Futane S1, Salunke P.

Clin Neurol Neurosurg. 2013 Oct;115(10):2304-6. doi: 10.1016/j.clineuro.2013.08.011.

4. Cervical canal stenosis caused by progressive fusion and enlargement of cervical vertebrae with features of Proteus syndrome and Klippel-Feil syndrome.

Sugita S1, Chikuda H, Ohya J, Taniguchi Y, Takeshita K, Haga N, Ushiku T, Tanaka S.

5. Klippel Feil syndrome with occipital encephalocele, duodenal web, left pelvic kidney, ASD, anorectal malformation fetal and postnatal imaging.

Herman TE1, Siegel MJ, Vachharajani A.

Skeletal Radiol. 2013 Dec;42(12):1743-6. doi: 10.1007/s00256-013-1663-y. Epub 2013 Jun 13.

J Perinatol. 2013 Mar;33(3):245-7. doi: 10.1038/jp.2012.155.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 19, 2018

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