Cervical spondylosis, also known as cervical osteoarthritis or neck arthritis, can be a painful and debilitating condition, but with proper care and treatment, many people who suffer from it can lead normal lives.
Cervical spondylosis is common as people age. You don’t hear the term a lot because most people refer to it as either cervical osteoarthritis or neck arthritis. The condition impacts more than 85 percent of people over the age of 60. Some people have a mild case and experience few or no symptoms at all, while others have chronic, severe pain and stiffness. The condition is essentially one that affects the joints and discs in the neck.
Cervical spondylosis: Causes and risk factors
We all have bones and protective cartilage in our necks, which are prone to wear and tear. This wear and tear is what leads to cervical spondylosis. Just how the deterioration occurs varies from person to person. There can be many different causes of cervical spondylosis.
Bone spurs: Sometimes, an overgrowth of bone can occur as the body is trying to grow extra bone to help make the spine stronger. The extra bone can push against the spinal cord and nerves.
Dehydrated discs: Gel-like material inside the discs between bones can dry out over time. This causes bones to rub together. This drying out typically begins around age 40.
Herniated discs: Spinal discs can develop cracks, which allow cushion material to leak and press on the spinal cord and nerves.
Injury: A fall, a car accident, or any injury to the neck can speed up aging.
Ligament stiffness: Cords connecting the spinal bones can become stiff over time and make it difficult to move the neck.
Overuse: Early wear and tear can occur if someone’s occupation or hobbies involve repetitive movements or heavy lifting.
There are risk factors for cervical spondylosis to consider. While herniated discs, dehydration, and bone spurs are due to aging, there are other factors that can increase your risk of neck arthritis. For example, neck injuries can happen at any stage of life, work-related activities such as lifting can happen at various ages, as well as holding your neck in an uncomfortable position for long periods of time can lead to stress on the joint and ligaments. Studies show that genetics play a role, too. Those who smoke and those who are overweight are also at a higher risk of getting cervical spondylosis.
What are the symptoms of cervical spondylosis
As outlined above, cervical spondylosis symptoms are different for each individual. However, here’s a look at some common signs and symptoms.
- Neck stiffness
- Neck pain
- Headache (originating from the neck)
- Pain in the arms or shoulders
- Difficulty turning head or bending neck
- A grinding sensation or noise when turning neck
Unfortunately, there are some situations where cervical spondylosis results in pressure on the spinal cord. This is a condition called myelopathy. People with myelopathy may also experience some of the following symptoms.
- Tingling or numbness in arms, hands, legs, or feet
- Lack of coordination
- Abnormal reflexes
- Muscle spasms
Something called cervical radiculopathy is also possible. This occurs when bone spurs press on nerves as they exit the bones of the spinal column. This can lead to pain shooting down one or both arms.
If you or someone you know experiences sudden onset of numbness or tingling in the shoulder, arms, or legs, or has bladder control issues, medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.
Cervical spondylosis diagnosis
A cervical spondylosis diagnosis usually comes after a doctor has ruled out other conditions. For example, some people may think they are suffering from cervical osteoarthritis, but they just might have fibromyalgia.
A physician will start by testing movement and determining if bones, muscles, or nerves are affected. An orthopedic specialist might be involved in the diagnosis. Once a physical exam is conducted, tests will likely be ordered. These tests are designed to examine a person’s reflexes, detect range of motion, check muscle weakness, and look for any sensory deficits. If cervical spondylosis is suspected, the following tests may be conducted.
- X-ray – checks for bone spurs or other abnormalities
- CT scan – provides detailed images of the neck
- MRI – helps locate pinched nerves and highlights certain areas of the spine.
- EMG (electromyography) – checks nerve functioning
- Nerve conduction study – checks speed and length of signals sent by nerves.
Treating cervical spondylosis
No one wants to live in constant pain or be restricted in daily activities. Treating cervical spondylosis is all about relieving pain and helping people maintain their normal activities. It is also about helping people prevent further injury or permanent spinal cord problems. Let’s look at some of the possible treatments, keeping in mind that the approach depends on the severity of each individual’s condition.
- Medications – Doctors may prescribe anti-inflammatories to relieve pain and inflammation, corticosteroids such as prednisone to ease pain, muscle relaxants to relieve muscle spasms in the neck, anti-seizure medications to dull pain in damaged nerves, prescription pain relievers like Percocet, or antidepressants that have been known to ease neck pain.
- Therapy – Physical therapists can guide a person through exercises to stretch and strengthen the neck. Some people benefit from the use of traction.
- Acupuncture – Stimulating certain points in the neck with needles to encourage pain relief.
- Surgery – This can involve removing a herniated disc or bone spur, removing part of a vertebra, or fusing a segment of the neck. Surgery is usually a last resort.
Change in lifestyle for cervical spondylosis
Of course, people want to avoid surgery, but some people also would rather turn to cervical spondylosis home remedies rather than traditional medications. Many people with mild neck arthritis have found that home remedies are very helpful. For example, people who are able to maintain some sort of exercise on a daily basis can do well. This could be something as simple as walking each day. Others find that heat or ice can bring great relief. Sometimes, a soft neck brace is just what the neck muscles need to rest. A neck brace should only be worn for short periods of time though, otherwise it will weaken neck muscles over time.
While we can’t stop the aging process, we can take steps to protect our skeletal structure. Many rheumatologists and orthopedic specialists suggest that we avoid constantly engaging in activities that put pressure on the neck, avoid lifting heavy weight when possible, take short breaks in-between work and other activities to give the neck a rest, meet our daily calcium intake, stay hydrated, and consume lots of fruits and green leafy vegetables.