Cervical arthritis refers most commonly to age-related degeneration in the neck, characterized by disc degeneration and facet arthritis. This degeneration can result in cervical stenosis, which is narrowing of the spinal canal, with resultant pressure on the nerves that pass through the canal. Pressure on the nerves in turn can result in cervical radiculopathy and cervical myelopathy, as well as neck pain from the degenerative changes.
Cervical arthritis most commonly begins in the 4th and 5th decades of life and is most likely to affect C5-6 and C6-7 because these levels have the most motion in the neck. This condition is more likely to occur in men than women. Risk factors include heavy lifting, smoking, and excessive driving.
Cervical arthritis typically causes neck pain and can cause arm symptoms (including pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness). These symptoms can vary dramatically, causing some people to be quite debilitated while others can continue with their daily activities. Additionally, the symptoms may vary with time, where flare ups can last for several weeks to months and then improve with time.
When the spinal cord is pinched by arthritis, patients may experience signs and symptoms of cervical myelopathy. This is a potentially serious condition that is characterized by difficulty with balance and walking, over-active nerve reflexes, trouble with delicate finger movements such as buttoning buttons, and issues with bowel and bladder function.
X-rays show bones and are the best way to evaluate arthritis. At times they will show narrowing of a disc space level or instability that may suggest pinched nerves.
With persistent neck and arm symptoms that are unbearable or have lasted longer than a month, an MRI is often necessary. MRI scans, unlike x-rays, have the ability to illustrate cervical stenosis and pinched nerves.
Cervical arthritis may be prevented by avoiding the following: improper lifting, excessive body weight, repetitive strenuous activity, excessive driving, and smoking. However, many of the contributing factors are due to age and genetics and are not preventable.