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Cervical Osteoarthritis (Cervical Spondylosis)

What Is Cervical Spondylosis?

Cervical spondylosis is also called cervical osteoarthritis. It is a condition involving changes to the bones, discs, and joints of the neck. These changes are caused by the normal wear-and-tear of aging. With age, the discs of the cervical spine gradually break down, lose fluid, and become stiffer. Cervical spondylosis usually occurs in middle-aged and elderly people.

As a result of the degeneration of discs and other cartilage, spurs or abnormal growths called osteophytes may form on the bones in the neck. These abnormal growths can cause narrowing of the interior of the spinal column or in the openings where spinal nerves exit, a related condition called cervical spinal stenosis.

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Cervical spondylosis most often causes neck pain and stiffness. Although cervical spondylosis is rarely progressive, corrective surgery can be helpful in severe cases.

What Are the Risk Factors for Cervical Spondylosis?

Aging is the major factor for developing cervical osteoarthritis (cervical spondylosis). In most people older than age 50, the discs between the vertebrae become less spongy and provide less of a cushion. Bones and ligaments get thicker, encroaching on the space of the spinal canal.

Another factor might be a previous injury to the neck. People in certain occupations or who perform specific activities -- such as gymnasts or other athletes -- may put more stress on their necks.

Poor posture might also play a role in the development of spinal changes that result in cervical spondylosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Cervical Spondylosis?

The symptoms of cervical spondylosis include:

  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Headache that may originate in the neck
  • Pain in the shoulder or arms
  • Inability to fully turn the head or bend the neck, sometimes interfering with driving
  • Grinding noise or sensation when the neck is turned

Symptoms of cervical spondylosis tend to improve with rest. Symptoms are most severe in the morning and again at the end of the day.

If cervical spondylosis results in pressure on the spinal cord (cervical stenosis), it can put pressure on the spinal cord, a condition called cervical myelopathy. Symptoms of cervical spondylosis with myelopathy include:

  • Tingling, numbness, and/or weakness in the arms, hands, legs, or feet
  • Lack of coordination and difficulty walking
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of control over bladder and bowel (incontinence)

Another possible complication of cervical spondylosis is cervical radiculopathy, when bone spurs press on nerves as they exit the bones of the spinal column. Pain shooting down into one or both arms is the most common symptom.

How Is Cervical Spondylosis Diagnosed?

The doctor will generally begin by asking you about symptoms and taking a medical history. This will be followed by a physical exam of the body, with a focus on the neck, back, and shoulders. The doctor is also likely to test reflexes and the strength of hands and arms, check for loss of sensation, and watch you walk. 

Other tests that might be done include imaging exams such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI scans use large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to produce the best images of the body. You might also be referred to a neurologist.

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