If you have ever had neck pain or headaches, and you’ve gone to see you doctor, they may have told you that either “your X-rays are normal” or “you have arthritis in your neck, but it’s part of the normal aging process.”
So let me ask you this… if arthritis of the neck is the normal aging process, why don’t all your joints have arthritis? Are your shoulders or your hips fine? Aren’t they the same age as your neck?
I see a lot of X-rays, and arthritis of the neck is one of the most common findings in patients over age 40. Also called cervical arthritis, it’s basically wear and tear, or degeneration of the vertebrae (bones) in the neck.
What Causes Arthritis of the Neck?
Have you ever been in a fender bender? You know, one of those “minor” accidents that really didn’t cause too much damage? Maybe you had a little dent in the bumper or the fender of your car, but you were OK?
If you have arthritis in your neck and have ever been in a fender bender, there’s a good chance that slight accident started the problem you are experiencing now.
No one ever told you that, did they?
Any accident that has enough force to damage your car, will damage your spine. But because we “feel OK” afterwards, we tend to ignore it and not get it checked out.
When you are in a car that is hit, the impact throws your head either forward, backward, or to the side. Since your head weighs about as much as a bowling ball, the entire injury puts a lot of strain on the delicate neck, and can cause the curve that gives your neck strength and stability to straighten out.
Once that happens, you are pretty much guaranteed to have arthritis in your neck 10-20 years down the road. Unless you fix it.
You can also get arthritis if you have bad posture, where your head juts forward and your shoulders are rolled forward. This puts excess pressure on the spine, and causes it to wear out faster.
Think of it this way… try holding a bowling ball in your hands with your arms straight out in front of you. Hard to do, right? That’s because there is more strain on your arms with the weight out in front of you.
The same thing happens with your neck. Your head should be right over your shoulders. If it’s too far forward, it puts extra pressure on the spine, and can cause arthritis if left that way.
Symptoms of arthritis in the neck
- Neck stiffness
- Numbness, tingling, pain or weakness in the hands
- Spasms in the neck muscles, shoulders, and upper back
- Pain in the lower back or legs (especially if your spinal cord is being pushed on)
- Strange, unexplained symptoms anywhere in the body (again, if the spinal cord is being impinged anywhere)
A mild case of arthritis can be helped with non-invasive treatments like chiropractic care, or osteopathy. Acupuncture can help arthritis pain as well, especially if yours is a mild case. Find a practitioner who is comfortable teaching you exercises that will help restore the proper curve to your neck, and who will address your posture to correct anything there that is contributing to the extra strain.
Moderate to severe cases are harder to treat with non-invasive treatments, but can still be successfully helped; it just takes a little longer.
If there are bone spurs and the discs have thinned, we may be able to drop pain levels, but we won’t be able to fix the bone spurs. With the proper home traction tools, you may be able to help heal your discs a bit, depending on how thin and dried out they are.
Traditional Medical Management of Arthritis
The traditional medical management of arthritis of the neck usually consists of NSAID’s for inflammation and pain, and muscle relaxers to help the spasms. These osteoarthritis drugscan have some serious side effects, so take them with caution, and they were not designed for long term use.
If medications don’t work, the next step is often cortisone injections into the neck. While the cortisone will help with inflammation, it may only be temporary (I’ve had people tell me they had relief for only 12-24 hours). A side effect of cortisone injections is that they will cause the stabilizing tissues of the spine (ligaments and tendons) to wear out faster, ultimately leading to a more unstable neck and further arthritis!
If you have arthritis of the neck, there is hope. If it’s mild case, you may be able to reverse some of the damage, and you can definitely fix the postural distortions that are making it worse.