What is cervical spondylosis?

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

What are the parts of the cervical spine?

Your entire spine is made up of 24 vertebrae (bones of the spine). The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae that begin at the base of the skull. Running through an opening of the entire vertebral column are the spinal cord and its nerves. The spinal cord and nerves carry messages between the brain and rest of body, including muscles and organs. Between each vertebrae are disks. The disks act like the body’s shock absorbers. The disks are made of flexible but strong connective tissue filled with a gel-like material. Disks are like “jelly-filled, cushy doughnuts” between each vertebrae.

There are three joints between each pair of vertebrae. The front joint is called the intervertebral disk. Two joints in the back of the spine are called facet joints. Within every joint is cartilage, which cushions the ends of bones. Ligaments are soft bands of tissue that connect the vertebrae together.

Spondylosis is the natural wearing down of these parts of the spine. Cartilage wears out over time, disks lose their volume and become dried and cracked, ligaments may thicken and bone spurs may form where bones rub against each other in areas that are no longer covered with cartilage. All of these changes are defined as spondylosis.

How common is cervical spondylosis?

Changes in your spine are considered a normal part of aging. The spine likely begins this wearing-down process sometime in your 30s. By age 60, almost nine in 10 people have cervical spondylosis.

Who is most at risk for getting cervical spondylosis?

Older age is a risk factor for cervical spondylosis. In addition to age, you are more likely to experience neck pain or other symptoms related to cervical spondylosis if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes or used to.
  • Have one or more family members with this condition.
  • Strain your neck often for your job, like looking overhead (for example, painters) or downward (plumbers or flooring installers) for many hours every day or keeping your head at an improper position for long periods of time (for example, staring at a computer screen that is too high or low).
  • Have a previous neck injury, such as from a car accident.
  • Do heavy lifting like construction workers.
  • Are exposed to a lot of vibration like bus or truck drivers.

What causes cervical spondylosis?

As you get older, your spine undergoes changes due to decades of normal wear and tear. Starting in middle age, the disks between your vertebrae start to change. These changes can include:

  • Degeneration: The spinal disks in your neck may slowly wear down (degenerate). With time, the disks become thinner, and the soft tissue has less elasticity. If you or your parents measure in a little shorter in height than you did years ago, this is normal collapsing or settling of your disks.
  • Herniation: Normal aging can cause part of your spinal disk to tear or crack. This is called a herniated disk. The herniation can allow the disk to bulge out, pressing on nearby tissue or a spinal nerve. This pressure can cause pain, tingling or numbness.
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a progressive (ongoing) condition that causes cartilage in your joints to degenerate (wear down with time). With osteoarthritis, cartilage degenerates faster than with normal aging.
  • Bone spurs: When cartilage in the joints of the vertebrae in your spine starts to degenerate and bone tissue rubs directly against other bone tissue, abnormal bone growths develop along the edges of vertebrae. These growths (called osteophytes or bone spurs) are common as you age. Often, they cause no symptoms.

What are the most common cervical spondylosis symptoms?

You may have cervical spondylosis and not even know it. It’s common to have no symptoms related to this condition.

If you do experience symptoms, symptoms typically include:

  • Neck pain or stiffness. This may be the main symptom. Pain may get worse when you move your neck.
  • A nagging soreness in the neck.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • A clicking, popping or grinding sound when you move your neck.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headaches.

What is cervical myelopathy?

As your vertebral disks wear away with time, your spinal cord can be put under increased pressure as the canal gets narrower from arthritis and disk protrusions. This compression can result in worsening neck pain and other symptoms. This condition is called cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM).

If you have CSM, you have the symptoms seen with cervical spondylosis, plus these additional symptoms:

  • Weakness, tingling or numbness in one or both arms or legs.
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control.
  • Trouble walking (feeling unsteady on your feet).
  • Loss of function in hands, like having problems writing.

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

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