What is Cervical Osteoarthritis?

Cervical osteoarthritis refers to arthritic changes that occur in the neck. With age, normal wear and tear can cause the vertebrae, joints and discs in the cervical spine to degenerate. Most people have some degree of cervical osteoarthritis by the age of 60, although they may not have obvious symptoms. Cervical osteoarthritis can occur in younger people, too, especially those who have a history of a neck injury or repetitive trauma to the neck.

With age, the discs that separate vertebrae in the cervical spine and act as shock absorbers begin to lose fluid. As a result, they can herniate or even collapse. The vertebrae in the neck can also develop bone spurs, which in turn can put pressure on the nerve roots or spinal cord and lead to neck pain and other symptoms.

Causes

Cervical osteoarthritis mainly comes from aging and natural “wear and tear” on the vertebrae and discs in the spine. Most people develop some degenerative changes in their cervical spine as they age, although not all will experience neck pain. People who work at jobs that require heavy lifting or bending or who play sports are at a higher risk. Smoking also contributes toward cervical osteoarthritis by drying out the discs that separate the vertebrae in the neck.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms are pain and stiffness in the neck, potentially radiating into the shoulders and arms. Others may experience no symptoms whatsoever. The pain may come and go or become progressively worse. Some people with cervical osteoarthritis experience neck spasms that make it difficult for them to move their neck. This pain may be worsened by activities that involve lifting, bending or prolonged sitting. Some people with cervical osteoarthritis also experience headaches.

When degenerative changes put pressure on nerve roots leaving the spinal canal, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or hands can develop. When a bone spur or diseased disc compresses the spinal cord, it can cause weakness or numbness in the legs, stiffness, and bowel/bladder problems.

Diagnosis

A clinical exam is always the first step and usually includes X-rays. Additionally, an MRI can provide the best imaging for diagnosing cervical osteoarthritis. In some cases, a CT scan may be ordered, possibly including a myelogram, which involves injecting a dye into the spinal column.

Treatment

Some people with cervical osteoarthritis have few or no symptoms and do not require treatment. For those who do, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and muscle relaxants may help relieve pain and increase neck mobility. Other treatments that may be helpful are physical therapy, neck strengthening exercises, and stretching. Traction is another treatment option for some patients.

In more severe cases, an injection of a numbing agent and a steroid medication into the affected area may help with the pain. Many people encounter some improvement with conservative therapy, but if they fail to respond, surgery may be the best option.

Tom Wascher M.D. will review your imaging studies free of charge or, if needed, provide you with a second opinion. He has performed over 1,800 cervical surgeries during his career and wants to see that you receive the best treatment possible. He is a competent and caring surgeon who has your best interests in mind.