Arthritis in the NeckArthritis in the neck is a wear-and-tear neck condition resulting from years of minor trauma to the cervical spine and its structures. The severity of the ‘wear’ varies between individuals, but is almost always worse in those who have worked in a physically demanding occupation for many years, such as construction. Other activities, such as professional dancing, gymnastics, or even surfing (where heavy surfboards are carried), can put significant pressure on the spine and the cervical area, and increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
Arthritis in the Neck Diagnosis
In cases of arthritis in the neck, most often a physician will be able to determine the cause of neck pain with a simple physical examination. Sometimes they may make use of x-rays or MRI scans to rule out other considerations such as ankylosing spondylitis which may require alternative treatments.
If arthritis in the neck symptoms are symmetrical and acute, particularly if the patient is younger than 40yrs, then tests for rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition, may be conducted as the treatment for this will, again, differ from that of osteoarthritis. Other specific symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include stiffness first thing in the morning, warm joints, fatigue, and fever. Usually this condition affects the hands and feet, but can cause problems in the cervical spine and other joints in the body. Alcohol has been associated with an increased incidence of symptoms in those with rheumatoid arthritis, as has the presence of particular dietary factors such as plants containing solanine - including white potatoes, peppers, aubergines, and tomatoes - although no clear evidence has yet been presented to support claims of solanine’s effect (Liu, 2010)
What is Arthritis in the neck?
The discs in the spine can become thinner and less cushioning to the joints, causing the spaces between vertebrae to narrow. An additional problem can be the growth of osteophytes (bone spurs) at the vertebral edges and the facet joints, which also narrows the spaces (foramina) in the cervical spine. As spaces become narrower and discs and connective tissues degrade, this can lead to pinched nerves, disc herniation, cervical spinal stenosis, inflammation, numbness, headaches and neck pain. It is common to hear a grinding or clicking sound in the top of the spine on movement, which indicates the erosion of cushioning between the joints, and the bones simply rubbing against each other, causing damage.
Arthritis in the neck is referred to as cerivcal spondylosis, specifically this refers to the spine becoming inflexible and the cervical joints fusing together. Procedures to re-stretch the compacted spine do exist, but, as with most things, prevention is better than cure. Remaining limber, with frequent stretching and nutritional support can be advantageous for spinal health into old age. Ceasing smoking will also help as smoking is correlated with an increased degeneration in spinal health and poor recovery from spinal surgery (Tian, 2010).
Arthritis in the Neck Causes
If neck pain is caused by arthritis in the neck then the likelihood is that the joint linings themselves are irritated or worn, causing inflammation and pain. Stretched ligaments can also contribute to this neck pain, particularly if the body tries to compensate for a loss of flexibility by altering posture and straining other muscles.
Occasionally one or more nerves are trapped or damaged by the narrowing of spaces in the spine. It is also possible that this spinal stenosis is causing ischaemia (loss of blood supply) to the tissues in the cervical spine also, which will interrupt nutrient and oxygen supplies and further exacerbate any damage. Inflammation in the joints can cause this to happen, as can osteophyte growth, making anti-inflammatories (whether natural or NSAIDs) a likely course of therapy.
Specific Spinal Problems
If arthritis and neck pain are present and are impacting on the vertebral artery this can interrupt the blood supply to the brain and cause dizziness. If there is particular numbness or dizziness when looking up then this may indicate pressure on the vertebral artery. Medical help should be sought in this instance, as it can lead to blackouts and falls with serious repercussions.
Occasionally a cervical rib (an extra rib that is present above the usual first rib) can lead to a congenital narrowing of the foramina in the cervical spine and an increased likelihood of circulatory and nerve system compression. A rare occurrence is severe spondylosis of the spine, where the spinal column itself is put under pressure causing numbness and weakness of the limbs.
The Location of the Neck Pain
As there are so many nerves in the cervical spine it is difficult to predict how arthritis will affect each individual. Pain may originate in any area of the neck and lead to chest pain, shoulder pain, pain in the arms, and numbness or paraesthesia in the limbs.
Arthritis in the Neck treatment
A number of people suffering arthritis in the neck and back find relief from anti-inflammatory supplements such as fish oil for neck pain. NSAIDs are the conventional treatment option, but can have some unwanted side-effects. Other topical anti-inflammatories include gels which contain capsaicin (a hot pepper extract) which can also help improve circulation to the affected area.
Supplements which may help slow down, or even sometimes repair, degeneration of connective tissue in the cervical spine include glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM (Methylsulphonylmethane). Before using these nutritional supplements it is important to talk to a qualified doctor as they may not be suitable for all those suffering arthritis and neck pain.
Specific pillows for neck pain (including traction pillows), collars, and alternative therapies like acupressure and acupuncture may be helpful for some patients. Steroid injections may be considered to relieve pain, but are usually difficult to conduct in the cervical spine due to the complex array of structures in the area and limited access to the nerves themselves. Spinal surgery is another option, but is usually a last resort, unless the doctor feels there would be a particular benefit from early surgical intervention.
It is important to keep active even with arthritis in the neck so that joints keep from stiffening. After long periods of inactivity the muscles will be tight and are liable to spasm and cramp up, they will also be weaker and less able to support the joints. Maintaining activity serves to increase circulation throughout the body, but should never be done to the point of pain. If arthritis and neck pain are severe then a therapeutic program should be worked out with a qualified doctor to aid long-term flexibility and to slow down the degeneration of the cervical spine.
Arthritis in the neck exercises
Keeping joints mobile can involve simple stretches which, as with any exercise for neck pain, should not lead to uncomfortable pain. A qualified physiotherapist or pain management specialist may be able to help devise a program with appropriate daily stretches for specific patients. As a preventative course of action a daily stretching regime is advisable to keep the spine supple and promote strong, and supportive muscles.
Arthritis can cause both chronic and acute types of neck pain, depending on the pathology at work. Many treatment options and strategies are available, all of which should be discussed with the physician managing the individual case.
Last Updated: 04/12/2011