Many terms are used interchangeably to refer to arthritis in the neck and these include cervical osteoarthritis, cervical spondylosis, or degenerative joint disease. Generally it is referred to as cervical osteoarthritis. Just as in your lumbar spine, the facet joints in the cervical spine can degenerate and lead to arthritis in the neck.
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What causes Arthritis in the Neck
Arthritis in the Neck (Cervical osteoarthritis), sometimes called cervical facet joint syndrome, is a degenerative condition that causes pain and stiffness in the neck (cervical), region of the spine. The cervical spine includes the top seven vertebrae of the spine. There are two facet joints on either side of the back of each vertebra in the neck. These joints provide stability, while also enabling neck movements such as turning or nodding the head.
Cartilage lines each facet joint in the neck, and this cartilage is surrounded by a capsule filled with synovial fluid. This synovial fluid helps lubricate the facet joint, enabling smooth movements of the joint complex. In arthritis in the neck (cervical osteoarthritis), this cartilage begins to degenerate, or break down. The cartilage begins to thin and can sometimes, in acute cases, even disappear completely, causing bone-on-bone friction of the facet joints in the neck, and this is what leads to the development of osteophytes, or bone spurs.(1), (2), (3)
If these osteophytes impinge on any cervical nerve roots, pain, weakness, or tingling may radiate along the path of the nerve into the arm and hand. Cervical osteoarthritis can cause pain in the neck and upper back as well as the shoulders and between the shoulder blades. In some cases it can also result in headaches, a form of radiated or referred pain, especially in the back of the head.
Patients with cervical osteoarthritis may experience tenderness or swelling around the affected joints, as well as reduced or difficult movement, ie a stiff neck.
Arthritis in the Neck – Symptoms
- Pain that radiates to the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
- Pain and stiffness that is worse first thing in the morning, and then improves after getting up and moving around
- Pain that gets worse again at the end of the day
- Improves with rest
- May include headaches, especially in the back of the head
Cervical bone spurs known as osteophytes are a common marker of cervical osteoarthritis, and cervical osteophytes may impinge on a nerve, producing the symptoms that radiate into the arms. If the osteoarthritis impinges on the spinal cord it could lead to spinal cord dysfunction, and condition that is called cervical myelopathy. (1)
In some instances, cervical spondylolisthesis (when one cervical vertebra slips forward over another) may be a secondary issue to arthritis in the neck, although spondylolisthesis is much more common in the lumbar spine (lower back).
Cervical Osteoarthritis Treatment
Treatments for cervical osteoarthritis are usually nonsurgical and may include one or a combination of the following:
- Rest when the pain is severe
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), or COX-2 inhibitors (e.g. Celebrex) will relieve the pain caused by the inflammation that usually accompanies arthritis
- Traction and/or chiropractic therapy to help control chronic symptoms or provide relief for more severe episodes of pain from osteoarthritis
- Physical therapy and neck exercises to strengthen the neck, help maintain range of motion and prevent a stiff neck
- Cortisone injections, which help in reducing inflammation, which contributes to the pain, by injecting steroids directly into the affected area
- Muscle relaxants to help reduce painful muscle spasms in the neck and surrounding muscles
- Heat or ice, which may be used to help alleviate localized pain. Some people prefer a cold pack, especially after an activity that results in pain, to minimize swelling or inflammation. Other patients prefer heat, such as a heating pad or heat wrap, or moist heat, such as a moist heat wrap or hot towel for the neck or a warm bath or shower.
- Activity modification, to reduce positions and activities the cause discomfort, including changing sleep habits to minimize pain and discomfort upon waking in the morning.
While arthritis in the neck (cervical osteoarthritis) tends to be chronic, the symptoms are rarely progressive and rarely require surgery. However, for patients with severe symptoms that are impeding their ability to function, surgery may be an option and a cervical laminectomy and/or cervical spinal fusion may be considered. (3)
This article serves as a guide only and it is recommended to seek professional help if symptoms persist.