What is Cervical Spondylosis?
Cervical spondylosis is usually an age-related condition that affects the joints in your neck. It develops as a result of the wear and tear of the cartilage and bones are of the cervical spine. While it is largely due to age, it can be caused by other factors as well. Alternative names for it include cervical osteoarthritis and neck arthritis.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition is present in more than 90 percent of people over the age of 65, although some have it in such small degrees that they never experience symptoms. (Mayo Clinic)
For some, it can cause chronic pain, although many people who have it are still able to conduct normal, daily activities.
Cervical Spondylosis Causes and Risk Factors
Cervical spondylosis often develops as a result of changes in your neck joints as you age. Your spinal disks can become dry and begin shrinking around the time you turn 40, reducing the cushioning between the bones in your neck.
Your disks might also develop cracks as you get older. This causes them to bulge or become herniated. You might also develop bone spurs, or extra bony growths. Herniated disks and bone spurs can put extra pressure on your spinal cord and nerve roots, causing joint pain.
The ligaments in your spine, which are strands of tissue that connect your bones, might also become stiffer as you age. This makes it more difficult or painful for you to move your neck.
Cervical spondylosis can develop due to factors other than aging. These include:
- neck injuries
- work-related activities that put extra strain on your neck from heavy lifting,
- holding your neck in an uncomfortable position for prolonged periods of time, or repeating the same neck movements throughout the day (repetitive stress)
- genetic factors (family history of cervical spondylosis)
- being overweight and inactive
Symptoms: When Should I Call My Doctor?
Most people with cervical spondylosis don’t have noticeable symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can range from mild to severe and may develop gradually or occur suddenly.
One common symptom is pain around the shoulder blade. Patients will complain of pain along the arm and in the fingers. The pain might increase on standing sitting, sneezing, coughing, or backward tilting of the neck.
Another common symptom is muscle weakness. Muscle weakness makes it hard to lift the arms or hold objects firmly.
Other common signs include:
- a stiff neck that becomes worse
- headaches that mostly occur in the back of the head
- tingling or numbness that mainly affects shoulders and arms, although it can also occur in the legs
Symptoms that occur less frequently often include a loss of balance and a loss of bladder or bowel control.
If you have the sudden onset o numbness or tingling in the shoulder, arms or legs or if you lose bowel or bladder control, talk to your doctor and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Testing and Diagnosing Cervical Spondylosis
Your doctor will start by asking you several questions regarding your symptoms. Then, he or she will run through a set of tests. Typical exams include testing your reflexes, checking for muscle weakness, and testing the range of motion of your neck. Your doctor might also want to watch how you walk. All of this helps your doctor determine if your nerves and spinal cord are under too much pressure.
If your doctor suspects cervical spondylosis, he or she will then order imaging tests and nerve function tests to confirm the diagnosis.
- X-rays can be used to check for bone spurs and other abnormalities.
- A computerized tomography scan (CT scan) can provide more detailed images of your neck.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which produces images using radio waves and a magnetic field, helps locate pinched nerves.
- A myelogram uses a dye injection to highlight certain areas of the spine; CT scans or X-rays are then used to provide more detailed images of these areas.
Nerve Function Tests
- An electromyogram (EMG) is used to check if your nerves are functioning normally when sending signals to your muscles; it measures your nerves’ electrical activity.
- A nerve conduction study is used to check the speed and strength of the signals your nerves send; this is done by placing electrodes on your skin where the nerve is located.
Treatment Options for Cervical Spondylosis
Treatments for cervical spondylosis focus on providing pain relief, lowering the risk of permanent damage, and helping you lead a normal life. Non-surgical methods are usually very effective.
Your doctor might send you to a physical therapist for treatment. Physical therapy helps you stretch your neck and shoulder muscles and makes them stronger, which helps relieve pain. You might also have neck traction, which involves using weights to increase the space between the cervical joints and relieve the pressure on the cervical discs and nerve roots.
Your doctor might prescribe certain medications if over-the-counter drugs don’t work. These include:
- muscle relaxants, such as cyclobenzaprine, to treat muscle spasms
- narcotics, such as hydrocodone, for pain relief
- anti-seizure drugs, such as gabapentin, to relieve pain caused by nerve damage
- steroid injections, such as prednisone, for pain relief
If your condition is severe and doesn’t respond to other forms of treatment, you might need surgery. This can involve getting rid of bone spurs, parts of your neck bones, or herniated disks to give your spinal cord and nerves more room. Surgery is rarely necessary for cervical spondylosis.
Making Lifestyle Changes to Address Mild Pain
If your condition is mild, you can try a few things at home to treat it. You can take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or an anti-inflammatory drug like Naproxen. Using a heating pad or a cold pack on your neck can also provide pain relief for sore muscles. Getting regular exercise can help you recover faster. Wearing a soft neck brace or collar can give you temporary relief. You should not wear a neck brace or collar for long periods of time as it could make your muscles weaker.