Spinal arthritis, also known as spinal osteoarthritis, often affects the neck, or cervical region of the spine, as this area is highly mobile and must bear the weight of the head. The degenerative condition is characterized by the breakdown of cartilage on the facet joints of the spine. Spinal arthritis can develop for a number of reasons, but age is considered the main contributing factor to the development of the condition.
Spinal arthritis in the neck can develop as the aging process takes place. Over time, the cartilage that lines the facet joints begins to dehydrate. Cartilage dehydration, combined with the stress placed on the cervical spine, can cause the joint lining to wear away. Each facet joint is innervated by tiny medial branch nerves, which can become irritated or damaged as the cartilage breaks down. Additionally, raw bone may be exposed. The irritated nerves and the bone-on-bone friction can then lead to arthritis symptoms of inflammation, joint stiffness, pain, and tenderness. As the degenerative effects of cervical arthritis worsen, spinal cord or nerve root compression may come into play, which can cause pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling to radiate down into the shoulder blades, arms, hands, and fingers. A patient with spinal arthritis in the neck might also experience grinding or popping noises, headaches, and muscle spasms in the shoulders and neck.
In addition to aging, cervical spinal arthritis can also develop due to:
• Traumatic injury – Injuries such as whiplash or a forceful blow or fall may not cause spinal arthritis in the neck immediately, but damaged tissues and fractured vertebrae can set the stage for arthritis to more easily develop in the future.
• Cigarette smoking – Studies have shown that the toxins released when smoking tobacco can actually speed up cartilage degeneration in the spine.
• Forward head posture – Poor posture can cause a variety of conditions to develop in any area of the spine, but forward head posture can be particularly damaging to the cervical spine. This posture involves the misalignment of the head with the rest of the spine, where the head does not sit on top of the shoulders, as normal, but instead sticks out past the shoulders. This causes the body’s center of gravity to shift and places an inordinate amount of additional pressure on the spinal structures, which could lead to the development of spinal arthritis.
• Genetics – Oftentimes, genetics and a family history of spinal arthritis or other neck problems can play a role in the development of the condition.
Possible Treatments for Spinal Arthritis in the Neck
A doctor or spinal specialist may initially suggest a number of conservative (non-invasive) treatment methods to treat cervical arthritis symptoms. These might include the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and neck bracing or other spinal support devices. Physical therapy may also prove helpful by teaching spinal arthritis patients proper body mechanics and posture correction techniques. Furthermore, the use of cold and/or hot therapies can help numb painful areas, reduce inflammation, and promote nutrient-rich blood flow. Conservative treatments are usually able to provide symptomatic relief of cervical spinal arthritis after several weeks or months of treatment, and as a result, surgery is seldom required as a treatment method.