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Cervical Arthritis Symptoms

Cervical arthritis is a type of osteoarthritis that affects the neck area of the spine. Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis where the cartilage in joints begins to wear away as the body ages or as a result of trauma to a joint. In cervical arthritis, the vertebrae in the neck begin to degenerate, accompanied by degeneration in the flexible disks of shock-absorbing cartilage that fit between them. These changes gradually narrow the space in the vertebra.. This narrowing causes compression on the nerves leading from the spinal cord in the neck. The nerves become inflamed, producing neck pain and numbness that may radiate to the arms. If deterioration get bad enough then it can effect the spine sending pain or numbness in the legs as well .


Cervical arthritis tends to begin between the ages of 30 and 50 as part of the normal aging process; like all arthritic conditions, it may grow worse over time. Nearly everyone over the age of 50 experiences some wear and tear in the cervical spine, but not everyone develops symptoms of cervical spine arthritis. Once the cervical vertebrae and their disks begin to degenerate, a minor injury to the spine (such as that caused by a fall or sudden twist) may provoke symptoms. Cervical arthritis may also begin earlier in life, perhaps as the result of a back injury, such as those experienced while playing football or falling from a horse.

While cervical arthritis tends to affect men more often than women, its symptoms may be similar to those produced by two conditions seen more frequently in women: rheumatoid arthritis (a systemic disorder affecting the synovial fluid in the joints), and osteoporosis (a condition in which many of the bones in the skeleton are weakened and become brittle).


Cervical Arthritis Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Chronic neck pain, particularly with motion
  • Muscle weakness, with numbness in the neck and arms, perhaps also the hands and fingers
  • Tenderness to the touch at the neck itself
  • Stiffness which limits movement of the neck
  • Headaches
  • Loss of balance

    Degeneration of the cervical vertebrae can produce several different conditions affecting the spinal cord and nerve roots. Bony ridges, called osteophytes, often develop on the vertebrae as a result of arthritic change, reducing space for the spinal cord and limiting movement of the neck. The facets of the vertebrae (those portions that interlock with each other, forming joints in the structure of the spine) may also show wear and tear.

    Occasionally one of the soft disks cushioning the vertebrae may rupture, resulting in a herniated disk. When this happens, there is usually pressure against the spinal cord or nerve roots also. A herniated disk is a distinct problem, however, usually occurring as a single instance, whereas cervical spine arthritis is a progressive, chronic process that waxes and wanes over time. Cervical disc hernias usually result in prominent arm and hand pain rather than neck pain.

    About 5-10% of patients who have symptomatic cervical arthritis develop myelopathy, or compression of the long tracts of the spinal cord. This may produce symptoms of weakness, a loss of sensation or of one’s sense of position in space, and incontinence. As strange as it may seem, neck and radiating nerve pain is unusual in these cases.

Diagnosis of Cervical Arthritis Symptoms

If you experience chronic neck pain, your doctor may use a number of different tests to determine whether your condition is cervical arthritis. X-rays show any abnormalities in the bones of the spine, and help determine the amount of degeneration in the vertebrae and their facets. A myelogram with CT (computer tomography) scan provides the best detail of the bone structure of the spine. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans are sometimes done to get a clearer picture of other structures in the spine besides bone.

If x-rays or other imaging tests show that your particular case is severe (as in the case of numbness resulting from a disk pressing onto the nerves), your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon for further evaluation.

Cervical Arthritis Symptoms, Treatments and Options

In most cases patients respond to conservative cervical arthritis treatments that are carefully thought out for each individual. Rest of the neck area is essential. To accomplish this, it may be necessary to consider your general posture, the kinds of pillows you use in bed, and the features of your occupation that affect the condition of your neck.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be recommended as a cervical arthritis treatment to decrease swelling and relieve pain. Sometimes time-released medication is most effective. While other painkillers may be prescribed, narcotic pain medication is generally avoided. Patients who have a severe episode of cervical arthritis may benefit from a single treatment of a steroid epidural, injected directly into the affected part of the neck. This form of cervical arthritis treatment can often relieve the situation to such a degree that other treatment measures can then be put into place.

Other non-operative measures may include cold compresses to relieve acute pain. Massaging the muscles is also helpful. Avoiding stressful conditions may also help. Your physician may recommend ultrasound or whirlpool treatments. A physical therapist may be able to guide you in performing gentle neck exercises, and will have advice about improving your posture in order to minimize the effects of cervical arthritis.

Positioning of the neck may improve or worsen neck pain. When arthritis is the primary cause of the pain, the neck might be made to feel better in a flexed position. If, on the other hand, this is the result of a motor vehicle injury or a blow, then putting the neck in extension may relieve the pain. Traction is also helpful. A simple method of performing traction is to use the weight of your head as a traction device. If your pain is eased in extension, lying on a bed with your head off the end of the bed will provide eight pounds of traction. Pillows can be placed underneath the knees to avoid stretching and hyperextension of the low back. If arthritis is the problem and the pain is relieved more with flexion, lying on your stomach with a pillow under the pelvis and the ankles with the head dangling off of the bed may be helpful. This provides eight pounds of traction in flexion. Remember however, as this may relieve pain, be careful that you do not fall asleep in this position.


Surgery is generally recommended only in more severe cases of cervical arthritis, when the condition appears unresponsive to other forms of treatment. Patients should discuss the possibility of surgery with an experienced orthopaedic surgeon, weighing the likelihood of success in their particular case. Surgical procedures are tailored to the severity of the condition. Sometimes the surgeon can remove a portion of bone, relieving pressure on the spinal cord. Surgery may also be used to fuse some of the cervical vertebrae, remove a damaged disk, or enlarge the spinal cord space by clearing it of bony spurs. Sometimes bone graft procedures are used.

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Arthritis can develop as a result of an infection. For example, bacteria that cause gonorrhea or Lyme disease can cause arthritis. Infectious arthritis can cause serious damage, but usually clears up completely with antibiotics. Scleroderma is a systemic disease that involves the skin, but may include problems with blood vessels, joints, and internal organs. Fibromyalgia syndrome is soft-tissue rheumatism that doesn't lead to joint deformity, but affects an estimated 5 million Americans, mostly women. The approximate number of cases in the United States of some common forms of arthritis. is an informational out reach of the Consumer Health Information Network. It is our goal to provide up to date information about arthritis and other inflammatory and bone conditions in a easy to understand format.

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Most of the information in the site is compiled by editors from information provided by the National Institutes of Health. We are in the process of updating our pages. In the past we have not made reference to the source for information provide by our editors. In the next few weeks we hope to have all our pages marked as to the source.

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