A Guide to Cervical Spondylosis

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR
Was this helpful?
36

Cervical spondylosis is a condition typically caused by wear on the joints in your neck due to aging. Treatment often includes physical therapy and medications. This article discusses what cervical spondylosis is, including symptoms, causes, and risk factors. It also looks at treatment options for the condition.

What is cervical spondylosis?

A close up of a female's neck
Photography by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

Cervical spondylosis is the gradual degeneration of cartilage and bone in the joints of your neck. These are known as your cervical spine. This condition is most commonly caused by age-related wear and tear.

Over time, the discs between vertebrae may begin to dry and shrink, slip, or collapse. This causes the spaces between bone and disc to narrow. It can lead to increased pressure on the facets of the bone, which may then begin to deteriorate. The cartilage on bone ends may also wear away, eventually resulting in bone rubbing against bone.

To compensate for lost cartilage, bones will often develop new growths called bone spurs. Bone spurs can cause the opening your spinal nerves pass through to narrow. This narrowing, or stenosis, puts pressure on the nerves and can cause severe pain.

Treatment options are available for cervical spondylosis. If you are experiencing persistent neck pain, contact your doctor.

What are the symptoms of cervical spondylosis?

The pain caused by cervical spondylosis can sometimes be severe. Approximately 1 in 10 people with the condition develop long-term or chronic pain. However, some people may not experience any symptoms.

Symptoms of cervical spondylosis include:

  • pain in the neck and shoulders
  • stiffness
  • headaches
  • popping or grinding sensation when you turn your neck

Typically, you will not experience severe symptoms unless you develop a more serious condition, such as:

  • Cervical radiculopathy: This is when a slipped disk or a bone irritates or pinches a nearby nerve.
  • Cervical myelopathy: This is when the spinal canal narrows and compresses the spinal cord.

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy include:

  • a sharp pain that travels down into your arm
  • numbness or pins and needles in your arm
  • worsening of pain when bending your neck

Symptoms of cervical myelopathy include:

  • weakness or heaviness in your arms
  • lack of coordination
  • difficulty walking
  • issues with bowel control
  • issues with bladder control, though this is less common

If you believe you may be experiencing cervical myelopathy, contact your doctor right away.

What causes cervical spondylosis?

Cervical spondylosis is considered a natural part of the aging process. It is characterized by the degeneration of the cervical spine.

Many people over the age of 50 develop cervical spondylosis. However, you can develop it at any age due to reasons such as:

  • having a job that requires overhead work and repetitive neck movements
  • a previous neck injury
  • a family history of cervical spondylosis

What are the risk factors for cervical spondylosis?

Several factors may increase your risk of developing cervical spondylosis. However, not all people with these risk factors will develop the condition. Risk factors for cervical spondylosis include:

How is cervical spondylosis diagnosed?

To diagnose cervical spondylosis, your doctor will start by asking about your personal and family medical history. They will then typically perform a physical examination. During this examination, they will check your:

  • neck
  • shoulders
  • arms
  • legs

Your doctor will look for symptoms related to:

  • strength in your arms, fingers, and hands
  • touch sensations
  • reflexes
  • blood flow
  • flexibility in your neck and arms
  • the way you walk

Your doctor may also order testing to confirm the diagnosis. These tests may include:

This illustration shows the neck and different areas of the spine. It also shows differences between a healthy spine and a spine affected by cervical spondylosis.
Design by Mekhi Baldwin
This illustration shows the neck and different areas of the spine. It also shows differences between a healthy spine and a spine affected by cervical spondylosis.

How is cervical spondylosis treated?

Treatment for cervical spondylosis typically involves pain management and physical therapy.

Physical therapy is the main nonsurgical treatment option for cervical spondylosis, which usually lasts between 4–6 weeks. It generally includes isometric and resistance exercises to help strengthen your neck and upper back muscles.

Your doctor may also recommend medications along with physical therapy to help manage pain. These can include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen
  • oral steroids
  • muscle relaxants
  • anticonvulsants or antidepressants

In severe cases, surgery may be required. These can include progressive cervical myelopathy or cases where nonsurgical options are not effective.

What you can do to improve your cervical spondylosis

Certain lifestyle changes can help to manage cervical spondylosis when combined with the treatment plan designed by your doctor. These include:

  • engaging in low impact aerobic exercises such as swimming or walking
  • using a single, firm pillow at night to reduce strain on your neck
  • correcting your posture when standing or sitting
  • using a neck brace or collar for a short period of time

Read about neck exercises for cervical spondylosis.

What are the potential complications of cervical spondylosis?

Untreated or improperly managed cervical spondylosis can lead to serious complications. You can help minimize your risk of complications by following the treatment plan you design with your doctor. Complications of cervical spondylosis include:

  • chronic neck pain
  • permanent loss of sensation
  • progressive weakness and loss of muscle function

Frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions people frequently asked about cervical spondylosis. These answers were reviewed by Nancy Carterton, M.D.

What should be avoided in spondylosis?

People with cervical spondylosis should avoid:

  • spinal manipulation without first discussing it with your doctor, and stopping if you develop acute pain
  • making your neck “pop”
  • participating in strenuous activities until approved by your doctor
  • slouching while sitting in a chair or in bed

What does spondylosis pain feel like?

The pain from cervical spondylosis can range from mild to severe. It is typically accompanied by stiffness in your neck and shoulders.

Summary

Cervical spondylosis is typically the result of natural wear and tear of the cervical spine due to aging. Many people over the age of 50 develop cervical spondylosis.

Symptoms often include pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, as well as headaches. Treatment usually involves physical therapy along with NSAIDs or other medications to manage pain. In severe cases, doctors may recommend surgery.

If you experience chronic neck and shoulder pain, especially when accompanied by numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, contact your doctor.

Was this helpful?
36
Medical Reviewer: Nancy Carteron, M.D., FACR
Last Review Date: 2022 Dec 21
View All Spine Conditions Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.