When people get older, the disks and joints in the neck (cervical spine) slowly degenerate. The medical term for this age-related wear-and-tear on the cartilage (discs) and bones of the neck (cervical vertebrae) is cervical spondylosis. Or, as it is more commonly called, arthritis of the neck. It is a common cause of chronic neck pain that typically worsens as a person grows older.
WHAT CAUSES CERVICAL SPONDYLOSIS?
As you age, the bones and cartilage that make up your backbone and neck go through certain changes. These changes are normal, taking place because of the normal wear-and-tear that comes along with getting older. Over time, the discs of the spine start to degenerate (break down), lose fluid, and stiffen, which can lead to:
- Bone spurs: In an effort to strengthen the spine, the body creates extra amounts of bone. This extra bone, however, can press on the spinal cord and nerves, resulting in pain.
- Stiff ligaments: When ligaments get stiffer, they can make the neck feel tight, which affects mobility.
- Herniated discs: When cracks appear on the exterior of the spinal discs, they can start to bulge (herniate). This often leads to pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
- Dehydrated discs: Around age 40, spinal discs start to dry out and shrink. When this happens, discs no longer work as cushions between the vertebrae of your spine. Because of this, more bone-on-bone contact occurs.
SYMPTOMS OF CERVICAL SPONDYLOSIS
Symptoms vary between people who have cervical spondylosis. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can develop gradually or occur suddenly. The most common symptom of cervical spondylosis is pain and stiffness in the neck. This pain usually improves with rest or lying down.
Other symptoms may include:
- Grinding or popping noise when you turn your neck
- Muscle weakness or spasms in the neck or shoulders
Chronic compression of the spinal cord and nerve roots could also cause symptoms such as pain in the shoulder, arm, or hand and/or abnormal sensations such as tingling or numbness in the upper extremities (arms, hands, and fingers).
In rarer cases, patients may experience a loss of balance and/or a loss of bladder or control. Additionally, if the lower back is affected, patients may experience pain in the buttock and/or sciatica (leg pain).
If you notice a sudden onset of the symptoms above–especially numbness or loss of bladder or bowel control–seek medical attention. Your doctor may refer you to a spine specialist.
TREATMENTS FOR CERVICAL SPONDYLOSIS
Although the condition can be very painful, spondylosis typically doesn’t require surgery. Non-surgical treatments for cervical spondylosis may include:
- Medications ranging from over-the-counter pain relievers to prescription pain relievers, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Some back pain specialists may suggest steroid injections.
- Physical therapy to help stretch and strengthen the muscles.
- Heat or ice to ease sore muscles that cause neck pain.
- Regular exercise to keep the neck limber.
- Weight loss to remove excess stress from the body.
While many patients respond well to these non-surgical treatments, there are times when they do not provide adequate pain and/or symptom relief. In cases such as these, a spine specialist may recommend surgery for cervical spondylosis once the patient’s situation has been carefully and thoroughly evaluated.