Cervical spondylosis is a condition that causes deterioration of the vertebrae, discs, and ligaments in the neck or cervical spine. Several strategies can help a person manage the pain and prevent symptoms from worsening.

Cervical spondylosis is also known as arthritis of the neck, cervical arthritis, or degenerative osteoarthritis.

The cervical spine refers to the top portion of the spine that forms the neck. A series of seven bones, or vertebrae, make up the spine’s cervical region. They start at the base of the skull.

In cervical spondylosis, the edges of the vertebrae often develop bone spurs called osteophytes. Over time, the discs get thinner, and their ability to absorb shock is lost, increasing the risk of symptoms.

Cervical spondylosis usually has no symptoms. When they do occur, symptoms tend to resolve over time, often with nonsurgical treatment. In certain cases, a doctor may recommend surgery.

Read on to learn more about cervical spondylosis, its causes, risk factors, and treatment.

Fast facts on cervical spondylosis

  • Nearly 85% of people over the age of 60 live with cervical spondylosis, but not all of them experience pain.
  • A range of neck-stretching exercises can help to relieve stiffness and pain.
  • Nonsurgical options, such as steroid injections and pain relief medications, can be extremely helpful. For severe cases, surgical options are also available.
  • Symptoms can include weakness and pain. In severe cases, the disc can press on a nerve and cause loss of consciousness and mobility issues.

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Osteoarthritis is the leading cause of cervical arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints breaks down. This is primarily due to wear and tear to the cartilage.

Researchers believe that certain risk factors may increase the negative effects of wear and tear, including:

  • genetics
  • lifestyle
  • epigenetics, which refers to environmental factors that influence genes
  • ethnicity
  • sex

However, the most significant osteoarthritis risk factor is aging.

Other types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), may affect the cervical spine, though this is less common.

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of RA.

The risk factors for cervical arthritis include:

People may not always experience symptoms when they have cervical spondylosis.

Most people experience neck pain. However, the pain may radiate elsewhere — often to the head or shoulders.

Some other symptoms of cervical spondylosis include:

Arms and legs may also become weak, and there may be a lack of dexterity.

Sometimes, these changes result in a compression of the blood vessels. This can affect the blood supply to the brain, possibly resulting in dizziness and even blackouts.

A doctor will often suspect arthritis based on a person’s symptoms, age, and risk factors.

Several tests can help to diagnose the condition. These include:

Physical examination

After discussing medical history and overall health, a doctor will perform a physical exam. They assess:

  • touch sensation
  • the way a person walks (gait) and posture
  • flexibility in the neck and arms
  • reflexes
  • strength in the arms and hands

Imaging scans

Diagnosis may involve:

  • X-ray: This can reveal any physical damage to the spine and the presence of bone spurs.
  • MRI: These scans can create images of the muscles, nerves, and spinal cord. They can help determine whether symptoms are related to soft tissue damage.
  • Myelogram: This involves injecting a colored dye into the spinal canal to show certain structures, such as nerve roots, more clearly. A healthcare professional will take a CT scan after inserting the dye.
  • CT: These scans can help assess the cervical spine’s bony structure in more detail than X-rays.
  • Electromyography and nerve conduction studies: These tests assess specific muscles, nerves, and their functionality.

Blood work

Sometimes, a doctor may also recommend blood work to rule out infectious arthritis and other potential causes of joint pain.

The correct exercises for cervical arthritis may depend on the person and pain severity. Physical therapy can help a person decide on a suitable exercise routine.

Some options to try include:

Head turn

  1. Sit in a chair with the back straight and shoulders neutral.
  2. Tilt the head to one side, as if looking over the shoulder, while keeping the chin straight.
  3. Gently tense the neck muscles.
  4. Hold for 5–10 seconds, return to the center, and repeat on the other side.
  5. Repeat the exercise 5 times on each side.

Chin to chest

  1. Sit upright in a chair or stand with the shoulders and spine straight.
  2. Slowly tilt the head so that the chin can rest on the shoulder.
  3. Gently tense the neck muscles.
  4. Hold for 5–10 seconds, return to the center, and repeat on the other side.
  5. Repeat 2–4 times.

Head tilt (side-to-side) stretches

  1. Sit in a chair with the neck and back straight.
  2. Slowly tilt the neck toward the shoulder, leading with the ear.
  3. Gently tense the neck muscles.
  4. Hold for 5–10 seconds, return to the center, and repeat on the other side.
  5. Repeat 2–4 times.

These exercises can help moderate the condition’s impact and alleviate pain or feelings of stiffness. However, they will not cure cervical spondylosis.

Alongside exercises, individuals can take some steps at home to relieve symptoms.

Most people can use over-the-counter drugs that do not need a prescription. Options include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen.

People with asthma, liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease, hypertension, or a history of stomach problems should not take NSAIDs. For severe pain, a doctor may prescribe different pain relief medications.

Other options include:

  • Physical therapy: This can help a person regain mobility, work around injuries and pain, and become more physically active.
  • Prescription medications: These may help treat neck tightness and spasms. They may include antidepressants or muscle relaxants such as cyclobenzaprine.
  • A heated pad or cold pack: These can provide pain relief when the neck muscles become sore.
  • A soft neck brace: This can temporarily relieve pain if a person wears it for short periods. However, long-term use can result in weaker neck muscles.
  • Disease-modifying agents: If a person has RA, doctors may recommend these drugs as an initial treatment.
  • Injections: Injections, such as a corticosteroid injection or a spinal epidural, may help pain that does not respond to other interventions. Examples of steroid injections include a trigger-point injection or a facet joint injection.
  • Infection treatment: If a person has infectious arthritis, a doctor will prescribe medication to treat the underlying infection.

These remedies may only work for less severe cases. People with severe neck pain should visit a doctor.

A doctor may recommend surgery if symptoms progress due to myelopathy or radiculopathy.

Myelopathy is the compression of the spinal cord, and radiculopathy is the compression of the root nerve.

Surgeries that may help certain forms of cervical arthritis include:

  • discectomy to remove herniated discs
  • bariatric surgery when a person’s weight affects their arthritis
  • spinal fusion, which reduces pressure on the root joints and the spinal cord

Research on the benefits of surgery has shown mixed results. For this reason, healthcare professionals advise discussing the risks and benefits of surgery and considering other treatments first.

Many different conditions can cause neck and back pain.

A person cannot reliably self-diagnose osteoarthritis. Moreover, if a person has a different type of arthritis, such as RA, early treatment may improve the outcome.

A person should contact a doctor if:

  • there are signs of an infection, such as a fever or feeling sick, alongside neck pain
  • symptoms do not improve after a few days of self-care
  • arthritis treatment is not working or is causing painful side effects
  • a person’s symptoms suddenly worsen

Cervical spondylosis causes a range of symptoms. The symptoms and the outlook can be unpredictable. For many people, self-care strategies and lifestyle changes may ease symptoms and prevent arthritis from worsening.

When self-care does not work, a doctor may prescribe medication, physical therapy, or other treatments, such as surgery. Making some lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, if applicable, or managing weight can also be beneficial.

There is no specific cure for cervical arthritis, but the right treatment may dramatically reduce or even eliminate symptoms.