Diagnosing Cervical Spondylosis, aka Neck Arthritis

Neck arthritis is a common, wear-and-tear condition that affects the joints and discs of the neck. It is also known as cervical spondylosis or cervical osteoarthritis. It develops initially from age-related wear and tear on neck cartilage and bones. That being said, while age is often the primary culprit, there are also other factors that lead to cervical spondylosis.

The condition is found in more than 90% of those who are 60 years of age and older. Some people may never experience the symptoms of neck arthritis, but for others, chronic, catastrophic pain and accompanying stiffness may emerge. Nevertheless, most people are still able to perform daily activities as normal with neck arthritis.

neck pain and stiffness from neck arthritis

Causes of Neck Arthritis

The bones and cartilage of the spine are susceptible to age-related wear and tear that may lead to neck arthritis. Here are some of the most common causes of neck arthritis:

  • Bone Spurs: These are overgrowths of bone that occur when the body tries to grow extra bone to fix spinal instability. That may sound like a good thing, but in fact, bone spurs end up pressing on the more delicate areas of the spine. One such structure that they apply pressure on is the spinal nerves, which may result in pain.
  • Dehydrated Spinal Discs: Between the spinal bones are thick, cushiony jelly donuts otherwise known as the discs of the spine. These discs help to absorb the shock of lifting, twisting, and any other activities that put pressure on the spine. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad things that might happen to these structures as we age. This jelly-like material often dries out over time, which leads to the spinal vertebrae rubbing together more than they should. This is painful and the process may begin as early as your 30s.
  • Herniated Discs: Spinal discs may also develop cracks, which leads to the leakage of the internal pillowy material. When this happens, the material may press on the spinal cord and nerves, which leads to symptoms such as arm numbness and pain.
  • Spinal Cord Injury: The aging process may accelerate in instances where the patient has had an injury to the neck (such as a car accident or fall).
  • Overuse: Some occupations require more repetitive motions than others. These motions put extra pressure on the spine over time, which may lead to early age-related problems.
  • Ligament Stiffness: Age-related wear and tear may result in a stiff neck and limited movement as time progresses.

Testing & Diagnosing For Neck Arthritis

One of the first steps in identifying the condition is ruling out other potential problems such as fibromyalgia. Diagnostics usually begin with a physical exam, which involves testing movement and revealing affected bones, muscles, and nerves.

Your doctor will begin by asking a series of questions about your symptoms. After that, he or she will then run a set of tests to determine your diagnosis. Typical exams involve testing the reflexes, seeing if there is any muscle weakness, as well as testing the range of motion in your cervical spine.

Your doctor may also want to see how you go about walking. All of this information is invaluable when making a diagnosis for neck arthritis. This will also help the doctor determine if the nerves and spinal cord are under too much stress. If your doctor suspects neck arthritis, then he or she will order imaging tests as well as nerve function exams to confirm their hypothesis.

MRI of cervical spine

Imaging Tests For Neck Arthritis

Your doctor may order the following tests to confirm if neck arthritis is the root cause of your symptoms:

  • CT Scan: This test provides highly detailed images of the cervical spine. It is more or less X-ray Imaging 2.0.
  • X-Ray Imaging: Your doctor may order this test if he or she suspects bone spurs and other similar ailments.
  • MRI Imaging: MRIs produce images via radio waves and a magnetic field. This machine helps your doctor locate the pinched nerves in your system.
  • Myelogram: This procedure uses a dye injection to highlight certain areas of the spine. The goal is to provide X-rays and CT scans more detailed images of the areas where the dye will be injected.
  • Nerve Conduction Study: This test checks the speed and strength of the signals that a specified nerve in your spinal system sends. Your doctor will place special nodes on your skin to determine where the nerves are.
  • Electromyogram (EMG): This test checks to make sure that the nerves in your spine are functioning normally when they send signals to your muscles. It also measures the electrical activity of the nerves.

This covers only the most used tests for diagnosing neck arthritis. In actuality, your doctor may employ any number of diagnostic methods depending on the specifics of your condition. Always communicate with your doctor and understand why and how things are being done. It is your body, after all.

Neck Arthritis: Symptoms To Look Out For

Even though 90% of people over age 60 have neck arthritis, the majority of them do not have symptoms. That being said, if symptoms do occur they can range from mild to excruciating. Additionally, these symptoms may occur suddenly or develop over time.

One of the most common symptoms of neck arthritis is pain around the shoulder blade. Some people also may find that they have pain along the arm and in the phalanges. This pain may worsen under the following conditions:

  • Sneezing
  • Standing
  • Coughing
  • Tilting the head backward
  • Sitting

Another symptom that patients often cite is muscle weakness. This symptom makes it much harder to perform everyday activities that require the lifting or the arms or the firm grasp of an object.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Headaches in the back of the head
  • A stiff neck that gradually worsens over time
  • Neurological symptoms, such as tingling or numbness in the shoulder and arms. This may also become present in the legs as well.

Other less commonly cited symptoms include loss of balance, and in more severe cases, loss of bladder control. If you experience these symptoms, please seek medical attention immediately.

man with shoulder and arm pain from cervical spondylosis

Neck Arthritis Treatment

Very few cases of neck arthritis require surgery. Most of the time, nonsurgical methods work best and are extremely effective. Such examples may include:

  • Medications: Depending on your symptoms, this may include muscle relaxants, narcotics, antiepileptic drugs, steroid injections, and more.
  • Physical Therapy: Your doctor may recommend a physical therapist to help you with your neck arthritis. This will allow you to stretch your neck and shoulder muscles, which ultimately makes them stronger and helps to relieve pain.
  • Other Conservative Options: Your doctor may also recommend less commonly cited treatments, such as acupuncture, yoga, or correcting your posture.

If your condition does not respond to these forms of treatment, then your doctor may recommend you for surgery. This may involve removing bone spurs, parts of the cervical vertebrae, or herniated discs.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, please contact us at (855) 210-0899. At New York City Spine, you will find an efficient facility full of passionate staff who care about putting you on a treatment plan that best suits your specific needs.

Explore New York City Spine