Key Points about Cervical Osteoarthritis

  • Cervical spondylosis is a common orthopedic condition that may occur as the neck bones, discs, and joints wear down.
  • Middle-aged and older adults are more likely to develop cervical spondylosis.
  • Cervical spondylosis can be caused by a variety of factors, including herniated discs, bone spurs, dehydrated disks, and stiffened ligaments in the neck.
  • The most common symptoms associated with cervical spondylosis are pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders, and arms.
  • If left untreated, cervical spondylosis can lead to cervical myelopathy or cervical radiculopathy.
  • Cervical spondylosis can be treated with physical therapy, neck traction, medications, and in rare cases, surgery.

Overview

Cervical osteoarthritis, also known as cervical spondylosis or arthritis in the neck, is a condition that occurs as the bones, discs, and joints in the neck wear down as you age.

The discs of the cervical spine gradually break down, become dehydrated, and stiffen with age.

Approximately 85 percent of people over the age of 60 experience cervical spondylosis.

Some patients do not experience symptoms, and when they do, symptoms can usually be relieved with nonsurgical treatments.

Cervical osteoarthritis causes

Cervical spondylosis can develop as the bones and cartilage in your neck wear down over time. Changes that may accelerate the degenerative process include:

  • Discs that become dehydrated and start shrinking, leading to more bone-on-bone contact.
  • Bulging discs that may occur as discs crack. The discs may press on the nerves in the spinal cord.
  • Extra bone can grow in the spine, which can pinch the nerves in the spinal cord.
  • Ligaments that stiffen with age can make the neck less flexible.

Cervical osteoarthritis symptoms

Although most people do not experience symptoms associated with cervical spondylosis, when people do, the most common symptoms include:

  • Pain or stiffness in the neck, shoulder, or arms
  • Headache
  • Difficulty turning your head or bending your neck
  • Grinding sensation when you move your neck

Most symptoms of cervical osteoarthritis improve over time, with rest. Pain is typically most severe in the morning or evening.

Cervical osteoarthritis complications

If cervical spondylosis puts pressure on the spinal cord, it can result in a condition called cervical myelopathy. When this occurs, you could have trouble walking, muscle spasms, loss of bladder or bowel control, and tingling or numbness in your extremities.

If a bone spur presses on the nerves when they exit the bones in the spinal column, you could develop cervical radiculopathy. When this occurs, you could experience shooting pain down the arms.

Cervical osteoarthritis risk factors

The most common risk factor for cervical osteoarthritis is aging. Middle-aged and older adults are more likely to experience cervical osteoarthritis.

People who have experienced a previous neck injury may also be at risk of developing cervical osteoarthritis.

Cervical osteoarthritis prevention

While cervical spondylosis cannot be prevented in many patients, follow these guidelines to reduce your risk, and slow the progression of the disease.

  • Exercise
  • Maintain proper posture
  • Use the correct equipment when playing sports
  • Avoid neck trauma

Cervical osteoarthritis diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose cervical spondylosis. Typically, your doctor will rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms. During a physical exam, your doctor will evaluate your movement and determine where the affected nerves, bones, and muscles are located.

Your doctor will likely order imaging tests such as:

  • X-ray to check for bone spurs
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan to locate pinched nerves
  • Myelogram
  • Electromyogram
  • Nerve conduction study to test the speed and strength of your nerve signals

Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor will refer you to a specialist such as an orthopedist, neurologist, or neurosurgeon.

Cervical osteoarthritis treatment

The goal of cervical spondylosis treatment is to relieve your pain, reducing your risk of developing long-term damage, and helping you return to your daily activities. In most cases, nonsurgical methods can effectively treat your condition.

More advanced treatment options include:

  • Physical therapy. The goal of physical therapy is to strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles to relieve pain.
  • Neck traction. Cervical traction increases the space between the cervical joints and relieves pressure on the cervical discs and nerve roots with neck traction.
  • Your doctor will try OTC medications as first-line therapy. If these medications are not enough, you may need muscle relaxants, anti-epileptic drugs, steroid injections, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications.
  • As a last resort treatment, surgery may be recommended if you are unable to move your arms as a result of cervical spondylosis. Your doctor may remove bone spurs, parts of your neck bones, or a disc herniation.

When to seek care

If you suddenly experience numbness or tingling in your extremities or you lose control over your bowels or bladder, go to the emergency room doctor right away.

If your symptoms are impacting your ability to perform daily activities, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Next Steps

  • Schedule an appointment with your doctor.
  • In preparation for the appointment, write down your symptoms, when they started, and any other information about your condition.
  • Your doctor will develop a treatment plan specifically for you. Follow your doctor's orders carefully, and if your symptoms worsen or intensify, call your doctor for the next steps.