Cervical Spondylosis

A disease of bones and cartilage in the neck, which may lead to pain and stiffness

  • Increasingly common over the age of 45
  • More common in males
  • Genetics and lifestyle are not significant factors

Cervical spondylosis is osteoarthritis affecting the upper spine. In this disorder, the vertebrae (bones of the spine) and the discs of cartilage between them begin to show signs of disease. The bones thicken, and bony outgrowths called osteophytes develop on the vertebrae. Inflamed joints and osteophytes may press on spinal nerves or compress blood vessels in the neck.

The condition is increasingly common over the age of 45 and affects more men than women. Rarely, it is triggered by injury and affects younger people.

What are the symptoms?

Many people do not have symptoms or may develop only very mild symptoms. When symptoms do become apparent, they may include:

  • Restricted neck movement that may be painful.

  • Pain at the back of the head.

  • Aching or shooting pain that travels from the shoulders to the hands.

  • Numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness in the hands and arms.

Sometimes, if the head is moved too quickly, the deformities in the upper spine may suddenly compress blood vessels that carry blood to the brain, resulting in dizziness, unsteadiness, or double vision (see Vertigo).

In rare cases, joints that have severely degenerated may put prolonged pressure on the spinal cord, causing tingling and muscle weakness or paralysis in the legs or, sometimes, difficulty controlling bladder or bowel function. Such cases require emergency medical treatment.

How is it diagnosed?

Some people may not have symptoms and cervical spondylosis may be recognized only when an X-ray is taken for another reason. However, if you experience neck pain or dizziness, consult your doctor, who may arrange for X-rays to look for signs of cervical spondylosis. If your doctor thinks that your symptoms may not be due solely to cervical spondylosis, he or she may arrange further tests to look for other causes, such as a prolapsed or herniated disc. You may also undergo nerve conduction studies and EMG (see Nerve and muscle electrical tests) to assess nerve activity in your arms and hands. CT scanning or MRI may also be carried out to see if there have been any changes affecting the bones, discs of cartilage, or tissues of the spine.

What is the treatment?

Changes in the spine are not inevitably progressive. There may be little deterioration for many years, and sometimes symptoms improve. To relieve symptoms in mild cases, your doctor may recommend painkillers or prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Once the initial pain has been relieved, the doctor may also suggest some simple exercises to maintain mobility and increase the strength of muscles in your neck.

If cervical spondylosis has damaged a nerve, surgery may be recommended to prevent the symptoms from getting worse. In this operation, the surgeon widens the natural opening between the vertebrae through which the nerve passes when it branches off the spinal cord. In a few rare cases, surgery may also be carried out to stabilize the spine by fusing together affected vertebrae.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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