What Is Cervical Spondylosis?
Cervical spondylosis is a general term for degeneration of the structures in the cervical (neck) region of the spine. The seven cervical vertebrae constitute the top portion of the spine—the long, flexible column of bones that supports the skeleton and protects the spinal cord. Flat, circular pads of cartilage known as intervertebral disks serve as cushions between the vertebrae and allow for smooth movement.
In spondylosis, rupture of a disk, or overgrowth of the vertebrae or the ligaments that support the spine, or a combination of these may compress the spinal cord or the nerves entering or exiting the spinal cord, causing pain and other symptoms. Spondylosis is common among those of middle age and older; many cases are mild and respond well to self-treatment.
What Causes Cervical Spondylosis?
- Aging causes changes in the spinal column that result in spinal stenosis—to the extent that everyone with spinal stenosis shows evidence of the disorder on an x-ray. However, symptoms vary and some patients don’t experience any pain.
- Cervical spondylosis may occur as a complication of osteoarthritis.
- Prior neck injuries may increase the risk.
- Vehicular accidents and other injuries can sometimes cause cervical spondylosis.
- Smoking, depression, anxiety are also among the risk factors.
Symptoms of Cervical Spondylosis
- Pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders. Pain may radiate to the arms and may worsen upon coughing or sneezing.
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
- Weakness in the arms and legs
- Loss of balance
- Gait irregularities or walking difficulty in advanced cases
- Impaired bladder or bowel control in very advanced cases
- Grinding and popping sound in neck with movement
Cervical Spondylosis Prevention
- There is no way to prevent cervical spondylosis.
- Avoiding neck injury can reduce the risk of having cervical spondylosis.
Cervical Spondylosis Diagnosis
- Patient history and physical examination are needed.
- Spinal x-ray, CT (computed tomography) scan, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan usually confirms the diagnosis.
- Myelography (injection of a contrast material into the space around the spinal cord to highlight spinal abnormalities during x-rays) is sometimes performed.
- Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies can be performed to diagnose nerve damage or pinching.
How to Treat Cervical Spondylosis
- Mild cases of cervical spondylosis may resolve on their own. Rest and immobilization of the neck with a brace may aid in recovery.
- Over-the-counter analgesics may be used for minor pain. For more severe cases prescription painkillers, muscle relaxants or tranquilizers may be warranted.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) may be used to ease inflammation and pain.
- Traction therapy may be required if pain persists. This is usually done on an outpatient basis and, if effective, can be continued at home.
- In advanced cases surgery may be performed to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves. Surgery may involve removing bony overgrowth in the vertebrae, fusing affected vertebrae together to prevent harmful joint movement, or both.
- Exercise or physical therapy may be recommended.
When to Call a Doctor
Call a doctor if persistent neck pain does not respond to self-treatment.
Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference
Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor
Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50
Updated by Remedy Health Media