Cervical (neck) osteoarthritis is also called neck arthritis or cervical spondylosis. Cervical osteoarthritis really just describes the wear and tear in your neck as you age. We all get this to some degree but some people get it a little more than others. It involves your bones, disc, joints and nerves in the neck. Overtime, the intervertebral discs in the neck development of little tears (non-painful) that cause the disc to dehydrate and lose its elastic properties. The middle of neck discs (nucleus pulposus) needs fluid to be spongy and act as a good shock absorbers. As the central fluid and the ‘sponginess’ of the disc reduces it looses its ability to absorb forces and this leads to osteoarthritis. This is somewhat simplified.
Generally speaking cervical osteoarthritis is most common in people over 50 years of age. However age is not the only risk factor, previous injury and occupations that are very labor intensive and specific sports activities such as gymnastics tend to increase the risk also. This is simply because you use your neck more, and the more you use something, the more risk of wear and tear.
The most common symptom of cervical osteoarthritis is neck pain and stiffness. Headache is also common and pain from the neck may project into the shoulders and arms. Lack of mobility of the neck, especially in rotation is common. Many patients will describe a grinding or ‘sandy’ noise when they rotate or movement their neck from side to side. Keep in mind the symptoms of cervical osteoarthritis could be nothing at all. Just because you have a bit of arthritis on an x-ray does not mean your neck function is compromised or that you should feel any problems with your neck. We will all get some osteoarthritis as we age, it is normal. Just like wrinkles on the skin are normal too.
Treatment of cervical osteoarthritis can be done conservatively (chiropractic and physiotherapy) and is in most cases very successful. Chiropractic and physiotherapy are the most logical first treatment options. Treatments are aimed at reducing any pain and improving the function of the neck. Physiotherapists and chiropractors incorporate a multimodal approach in the treatment of neck osteoarthritis and this involves joint therapy just a mobilisation, manipulation and mechanical strategies to improve neck motion. Strengthening/rehabilitation exercises are a foundation to self management programs developed for this condition.