What is cervical spondylosis?

Cervical spondylosis is a general term for age-related changes in the cervical spine (neck) that can lead to neck pain and other symptoms. Sometimes this condition is called arthritis of the neck.

What causes cervical spondylosis?

As you get older, your spine undergoes changes due to decades of normal wear and tear.

The discs between the vertebrae (bones in your spine) are made of flexible but strong connective tissue filled with a gel-like material. Each disc is similar to a jelly doughnut that cushions the vertebrae. Within the spine, nerves and the spinal cord carry messages between the brain and body.

Starting in middle age, the discs between the vertebrae start to change. These changes – collectively known as cervical spondylosis – can include:

  • Degeneration: The spinal discs in the neck may slowly wear away (degenerate). With time, the discs become thinner, and the soft tissue has less elasticity.
  • Herniation: Normal aging can cause part of a spinal disc to break or crack. Doctors call this a herniated disc. The herniation can allow the disc to bulge out, pressing on nearby tissue or a spinal nerve. This pressure can cause pain, tingling, or numbness.
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a progressive condition that causes cartilage in joints to degenerate. With osteoarthritis, cartilage degenerates faster than with normal aging.
  • Bone spurs: When cartilage in the spine starts to degenerate, abnormal bone growths may grow along the edges of vertebrae. These growths (called osteophytes or bone spurs) are common as people get older. Often, they cause no symptoms.

How common is cervical spondylosis?

Doctors consider these changes in the spine a normal part of aging. The spine likely begins this wearing-down process sometime in your 30s. By age 60, almost 9 in 10 people have cervical spondylosis.

What are the most common cervical spondylosis symptoms?

Many people with cervical spondylosis don’t even know it. It’s common to have no symptoms related to this condition.

If you do experience symptoms related to cervical spondylosis, neck pain or stiffness may be the main sign. Pain may get worse when you move your neck.

Other cervical spondylosis symptoms include:

  • A nagging soreness in the neck
  • Neck stiffness or spasms
  • A clicking or popping sound when you move your neck
  • Dizziness

As the vertebral discs wear away with time, the spinal cord (and the nerves around it) can be put under increased pressure. This compression can result in worsening neck pain and other symptoms. Doctors call this condition cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM).

In addition to the symptoms associated with cervical spondylosis, people with CSM may notice:

  • Weakness, tingling, or numbness in one or both arms or legs
  • Incontinence (bladder control issues that may cause you to use the bathroom more)
  • Problems walking (feeling unsteady on your feet)
  • Loss of function in hands, like having problems writing

Symptoms related to CSM may get worse over time. For most people, symptoms progress very slowly. If your symptoms don’t go away, or if they significantly affect your life, your family doctor may refer you to a spine surgeon who specializes in treating this condition.

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