Machine Learning and Symptom Patterns in Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy: Web-Based Survey Study

Alvaro Yanez Touzet, Tanzil Rujeedawa, Colin Munro, Konstantinos Margetis, Benjamin M. Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Degenerative cervical myelopathy (DCM), a progressive spinal cord injury caused by spinal cord compression from degenerative pathology, often presents with neck pain, sensorimotor dysfunction in the upper or lower limbs, gait disturbance, and bladder or bowel dysfunction. Its symptomatology is very heterogeneous, making early detection as well as the measurement or understanding of the underlying factors and their consequences challenging. Increasingly, evidence suggests that DCM may consist of subgroups of the disease, which are yet to be defined. Objective: This study aimed to explore whether machine learning can identify clinically meaningful groups of patients based solely on clinical features. Methods: A survey was conducted wherein participants were asked to specify the clinical features they had experienced, their principal presenting complaint, and time to diagnosis as well as demographic information, including disease severity, age, and sex. K-means clustering was used to divide respondents into clusters according to their clinical features using the Euclidean distance measure and the Hartigan-Wong algorithm. The clinical significance of groups was subsequently explored by comparing their time to presentation, time with disease severity, and other demographics. Results: After a review of both ancillary and cluster data, it was determined by consensus that the optimal number of DCM response groups was 3. In Cluster 1, there were 40 respondents, and the ratio of male to female participants was 13:21. In Cluster 2, there were 92 respondents, with a male to female participant ratio of 27:65. Cluster 3 had 57 respondents, with a male to female participant ratio of 9:48. A total of 6 people did not report biological sex in Cluster 1. The mean age in this Cluster was 56.2 (SD 10.5) years; in Cluster 2, it was 54.7 (SD 9.63) years; and in Cluster 3, it was 51.8 (SD 8.4) years. Patients across clusters significantly differed in the total number of clinical features reported, with more clinical features in Cluster 3 and the least clinical features in Cluster 1 (Kruskal-Wallis rank sum test: χ22=159.46; P<.001). There was no relationship between the pattern of clinical features and severity. There were also no differences between clusters regarding time since diagnosis and time with DCM. Conclusions: Using machine learning and patient-reported experience, 3 groups of patients with DCM were defined, which were different in the number of clinical features but not in the severity of DCM or time with DCM. Although a clearer biological basis for the clusters may have been missed, the findings are consistent with the emerging observation that DCM is a heterogeneous disease, difficult to diagnose or stratify. There is a place for machine learning methods to efficiently assist with pattern recognition. However, the challenge lies in creating quality data sets necessary to derive benefit from such approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere54747
JournalJMIR Formative Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • cervical
  • cluster
  • clustering
  • clusters
  • compression
  • degenerative
  • degenerative cervical myelopathy
  • k-means
  • machine learning
  • myelopathy
  • neck
  • patient reported
  • spinal
  • spine


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