How to Tell if You Have Arthritis in Your Neck
Arthritis in your neck can be a real pain, and surgery isn't the only option. Here's are the symptoms of neck arthritis and how to find treatments for your neck pain.
Yes, your neck pain could be arthritis
No matter where it occurs in the body, arthritis can be a real pain. One type, which goes by the name cervical spondylosis, can leave you with a stiff neck or major aches.
Often a side effect of aging, arthritis in the neck occurs when the discs, joints, and bones of the neck naturally deteriorate.
While you can’t stop the aging process, you can take steps to delay its effect on the neck.
And if you do develop arthritis in the neck, you can often find relief from at-home treatment plan that includes medication, icing or heating, and/or physical therapy.
Here’s what to know about arthritis in the neck, including the risk factors, treatments, and how to prevent it.
Meet your backbone
Composed of nerves, the spinal cord runs from the base of the brainstem down the back. A series of bones—the vertebrae—protect the area, collectively forming the spine. The area at your neck is technically called your cervical spine.
Your backbone contains discs that cushion and support the vertebrae. But over time, these vertebrae and discs naturally wear down, making them susceptible to arthritis.
What is arthritis in the neck?
There actually are three types of arthritis that can affect the neck: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.
Though arthritis in the neck often is the result of aging, that’s not the only cause. Neck injuries and joint inflammation in the neck also can lead to arthritis in the neck.
(Here’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis vs. osteoarthritis.)
Osteoarthritis in the neck
Osteoarthritis usually occurs due to wear and tear of the components in the neck.
Over time, the discs in between the neck vertebrae start to dry out, and the vertebrae start to become rougher. So you lose a lot of the cushion, support, and protection you enjoyed when you were younger.
“Disc degeneration causes the height between two vertebrae in the neck to decrease, which often results in two vertebral bones rubbing against each other,” says Kern Singh, MD, a minimally invasive spine surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University in Chicago. “The friction induced by this bone-on-bone interaction can lead to the formation of bone spurs, or bone overgrowth fragments, which may induce neck pain, stiffness, and inflammation.”
Osteoarthritis in the neck usually affects the lower portion of the neck.
Rheumatoid arthritis in the neck
This type of arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. If you have it, your immune system will attack and destroy the lining of the joints.
The disease ususally first appears in the hands, knees, feet, and ankles, progressing to the neck.
“This results in increased inflammation at the joint, and the body’s response to that inflammation comes in the form of pain and stiffness,” says Rahul Shah, MD, a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon at Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates in Vineland, New Jersey. “With this type of arthritis, the hands are likely to be affected, as well as the upper portions of the neck.”
Ankylosing spondylitis in the neck
Like rheumatoid arthritis, this condition is marked by inflammation in the joints. But there are some differences between the two diseases.
“With ankylosing spondylitis, the body’s own immune system turns against the ligaments and tendons around the spine,” Dr. Shah says. “As the ankylosing spondylitis progresses, additional stiffness can ensue.”
In very severe cases, the bones of the spine may grow together, causing a forward curvature of the spine and possibly disability.
Symptoms typically appear in the hips and lower back before occurring in the neck, Dr. Shah adds. This type of arthritis affects the whole neck.
Unlike osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis has no known cause.
(These are the everyday habits damaging your spine.)
What are the risk factors for arthritis in the neck?
There are a lot of reasons you may be more or less likely to have arthritis in the neck. Here are some top risk factors.
Aging is one of the top risk factors for arthritis in the neck, but it’s not the only cause. And, in fact, older age isn’t always a major risk factor—that depends on the type of arthritis you have.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which typically occurs with age, rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age. And ankylosing spondylitis can become symptomatic in adolescence or early adulthood.
People with a family history of arthritis may have a genetic predisposition for developing arthritis in the neck, Dr. Singh explains.
“Individuals with occupations that involve repetitive neck motions or overhead work may experience greater stress on the neck, making them more prone to arthritis in the neck,” says Dr. Singh.
Previous neck injuries and traumas may also contribute to the development of arthritis in the neck.
Smoking can also contribute to the degeneration of cervical discs, increasing the risk of arthritis.
“Smoking tends to increase nicotine levels within the blood, and nicotine can work to choke off blood to different areas,” Dr. Shah says. “As such, with limited blood supply, smoking can work to impede the body’s reaction to any of the arthritic conditions, potentially making each of these types of arthritis worse.”
While genetics can play a role in all three types of arthritis in the neck, rheumatoid arthritis typically affects women more than men.
Ankylosing spondylitis, on the other hand, typically affects more men than women, Dr. Shah says.
What are the symptoms of arthritis in the neck?
Surprisingly, many people do not experience any symptoms of arthritis. Those who do, however, may experience the following symptoms:
- neck pain
- neck stiffness
- numbness or weakness of the arms, hands, legs, or feet
- sensations of grinding or popping while turning the neck
- muscle spasms
- loss of bowel or bladder control
- lack of coordination
- fatigue and/or trouble sleeping
These arthritis symptoms could last for several months or become chronic over time.
With rheumatoid arthritis, you may also experience stiffness in the hands and wrists, particularly in the morning after waking up, Dr. Shah notes.
“Ankylosing spondylitis may affect the back and hips, again with symptoms worse after waking up,” he says.
When should you see a doctor for arthritis in the neck?
If your symptoms of arthritis in the neck do not improve over time, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
“If neck pain is not relieved by activity modification, rest, or over-the-counter pain relief medications, and symptoms remain unimproved for four to six weeks, it is time to consult a physician,” Dr. Singh says.
It’s especially important to check in with your doc if your neck pain symptoms are associated with neurological deficits, such as weakness in your hands or legs, loss of balance, or trouble walking.
How is arthritis in the neck diagnosed?
Following a review of your medical history, your doctor will conduct a physical exam wherein he or she will evaluate the following:
- neck flexibility
- range of motion
- blood flow
- touch sensation
If necessary, your doctor may order one or more diagnostic imaging tests. These can include X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, or myelography.
An X-rays will reveal the alignment of the bones in your neck and can document degenerative changes in your cervical spine.
Because it shows 3D images, a CT scan offers a more-detailed look at your spinal canal than an X-ray, which may reveal bone spurs.
An MRI provides a detailed look at the soft tissues in the neck, so your doctor can determine whether damage to these tissues might be causing your symptoms.
Myelography is a type of imaging test that uses an X-ray or CT scan and contrast dye to get a picture of the spinal cord and nerve roots in the spinal canal.
Your doctor also may perform a nerve function test.
“Nerve function tests, such as a nerve conduction study and/or electromyography (EMG), can be conducted to determine if the nerve signals are being transmitted to the individual’s muscles,” Dr. Singh says.
What are the treatments for arthritis in the neck?
For most people with arthritis in the neck, surgery is not necessary. Instead, your doctor will probably start with a treatment plan that includes medication, heating or icing, and/or physical therapy.
Depending on your type of arthritis and level of neck pain, you might use an over-the-counter (OTC) medication or prescription drug. For some people, a combination of medications can help.
Medications for treating arthritis in the neck include:
- OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen
- OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen
- Oral corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
- Muscle relaxants to relieve muscle spasms
- Disease-modifying arthritis medications
“[For] those who have neck pain due to inflammatory arthritis—rheumatoid and ankylosing spondylitis—disease-modifying arthritis medication to suppress the immune system may be prescribed,” Dr. Shah explains. “By modulating the immune response, the medication is used to specifically curtail the body’s reaction to one’s own tissues.”
In other words, your immune system may attack your own tissues, but arthritis drugs can curb that reaction.
Heat and ice
Your doctor may recommend you use hot or cold therapy to treat your pain. Which you use will depend on the cause of your pain.
Generally speaking, ice packs can help relieve inflammation, such as after an injury happens. Heat can improve muscle movement and make your tissues more flexible, making it a good solution for chronic pain.
It might sound counterintuitive, but moving your body when you’re experiencing neck pain can make a difference. Your doctor might prescribe physical therapy so you can learn safe and effective movements to ease aches and stiffness.
Treatment varies but usually starts with exercises that strengthen or stretch the muscles. If needed, your treatment also may include posture therapy or traction.
How long you need physical therapy depends on the severity of your arthritis of the neck and how well you respond to the exercises.
Soft cervical collar
In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you limit your neck motion to reduce stress on your muscles.
You’ll need to wear a soft cervical collar, which is a padded ring you place around your neck. In general, a soft cervical collar is worn for short periods of time.
In the event nonsurgical treatment does not provide relief to severe neck pain, surgery may be an option to resolve arthritis in the neck.
This may be the case if your arthritis is caused by a herniated disc pressing on a spinal nerve. You may need surgery to remove the disc.
(These are the best natural remedies for arthritis relief.)
How can you prevent arthritis in the neck?
One of the best ways to prevent arthritis in the neck is by maintaining good posture.
“Maintaining correct posture throughout the day and during sleep, coupled with neck strengthening exercises, may help to prevent [the] development of arthritis in the neck,” Dr. Singh says.
So check your posture—especially if you work behind a computer all day long or have a habit of scrolling social media on your phone.
“Incorrect posture, such as being hunched forward when looking at a computer or phone, applies pressure to the neck and spine,” he says. “Good posture, when ears are directly over the shoulders, with the chest open and shoulder back, can relieve neck pain and help prevent arthritis in the neck.”
Don’t forget proper sleep posture.
“Having good neck and back support during sleep, by utilizing a mattress and pillow that correspond to your sleep position, can help prevent neck arthritis,” Dr. Singh says.
Maintaining a routine of neck-strengthening exercises and neck-flexibility exercises also can help prevent arthritis in the neck.
Next, check out home remedies for neck pain that really work.
- Kern Singh, MD, minimally invasive spine surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University in Chicago
- Rahul Shah, MD, board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon at Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates in Vineland, New Jersey
- Merck Manual: "Spinal Cord"
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Cervical Spine"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Myelogram"