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Neck Osteoarthritis - What You Need to Know

An overview of neck osteoarthritis

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Updated July 16, 2014

Neck osteoarthritis, also known as cervical spondylosis, is chronic degeneration of the vertebrae in the cervical region of the spine, as well as the discs between the vertebrae. Neck osteoarthritis typically affects men and women over 40 and progressively worsens with age. The prevalence of neck osteoarthritis is the same for men and women, but men tend to develop the condition younger than women.

Cause of Neck Osteoarthritis

The changes caused by degeneration of the cervical spine region can compress one or more nerve roots. The compression of nerves can not only cause pain in the neck, but also pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the arm.

While a past neck injury can lead to neck osteoarthritis years later, aging is the major risk factor or cause of neck osteoarthritis. Seventy percent of women and 85% of men have x-ray evidence of neck osteoarthritis by age 60.

Diagnosis of Neck Osteoarthritis

The diagnosis of neck osteoarthritis is based on the patient's:

  • Medical history
  • Physical examination (observe for pain, range of motion in neck, reflexes, nerve and muscle function in arms and legs
  • Imaging studies and other diagnostic tests (may include neck x-ray, CT scan, MRI, myelogram, EMG)

Symptoms of Neck Osteoarthritis

Chronic pain and stiffness are the primary symptoms associated with neck osteoarthritis. Other symptoms associated with neck osteoarthritis include:

  • Neck pain that is worse with activity performed when patient is upright
  • Neck pain that radiates to the arm or shoulder
  • Numbness and weakness in arms, hands, fingers
  • Weakness in the legs, trouble walking, loss of balance
  • Grinding sound in neck upon movement
  • Headaches

Neck osteoarthritis can also affect sleep, the ability to work, and the ability to perform usual daily activities.

Treatment of Neck Osteoarthritis

If symptoms of neck osteoarthritis are relatively mild, nonsurgical treatments may be recommended. The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and prevent nerve compression. Resting and immobilizing the neck with a cervical collar may be helpful.

Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and non-narcotic analgesics or corticosteroid injections may be used to treat neck osteoarthritis. For more severe neck osteoarthritis, muscle relaxants may also be prescribed as well as narcotic analgesics.

Physical therapy including cervical traction, hot or cold therapy, and an exercise program to stretch and strengthen the neck and shoulders may be used. Massage therapy also can relieve pain for neck osteoarthrtis patients.

Surgical intervention may be required for very severe cases of neck osteoarthritis. The procedures may involve removal of bone, osteophytes (bone spurs), or disc tissue which is compressing nerves of the spinal cord. Cervical fusion, or fusing the discs in the cervical region of the spine, may help stabilize the neck.

It's important to see your doctor when you begin having symptoms. An early diagnosis will enable early treatment that possibly can slow the degenerative process or at least relieve symptoms and improve function.

Sources:

Cervical Spondylosis. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). October 2007. <http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00369>.

Cervical Spondylosis. MedlinePlus. 5/31/2006. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000436.htm>.

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