Neck arthritis is a common age-related condition that causes pain, inflammation, and stiffness.
As we age, the discs and joints in our necks begin to degenerate, often leading to a condition known as arthritis.
On top of this, your neck contains many nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that can become inflamed or irritated, often causing pain to radiate toward your head or shoulders.
While it can be painful, neck arthritis is a common condition that can be managed with medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.
Neck arthritis, also called cervical spondylosis, is a common condition that occurs when the cartilage and bones in the neck gradually wear down over time, leading to joint inflammation, pain, stiffness, and sometimes nerve compression.
Neck arthritis often develops with age or as a result of wear and tear on the neck from daily activities or injuries.
The symptoms of neck arthritis may vary depending on the severity and location of the degeneration in the disks and joints of the neck (cervical spine), but they may include:
- neck pain or stiffness, which may worsen with movement
- headaches, particularly at the base of the skull
- reduced range of motion in the neck
- muscle weakness or spasms in the neck, shoulders, or arms
- numbness or tingling in the arms or hands
- a grinding or popping sensation in the neck when moving
Neck arthritis headache symptoms
When neck arthritis affects the first, second, or third vertebrae, it can lead to headaches. Sensitive nerves run from your scalp to the top of your spine, so once your vertebrae begin to deteriorate, the pain can radiate to your head (or neck or jaw).
Here are some possible symptoms of headaches due to neck arthritis:
- Headaches at the base of the skull: Headaches caused by neck arthritis tend to occur at the base of the skull and may be described as a dull ache or pressure.
- Pain and stiffness in the neck: Neck arthritis can cause pain and stiffness, which can radiate to the head and cause headaches.
- Limited range of motion: Arthritis can make it difficult to move the head and neck.
There are several causes of neck arthritis, including:
- Osteoarthritis: The most common type of arthritis, which affects the neck, particularly in older adults. It occurs due to the wear and tear of the joints and the cartilage that cushions them.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune disorder that can affect any joint in the body, including the neck. It occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing inflammation and damage.
- Ankylosing spondylitis: A type of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, including the neck. It causes inflammation and damage to the joints and can lead to a stiff and painful neck.
Neck arthritis may be caused or worsened by the following conditions:
- Bone spurs: These are bony projections that can form along the edges of bones, often in response to wear and tear or chronic inflammation. Bone spurs lead to increased friction between the vertebrae, causing joint damage and inflammation.
- Herniated discs: Herniated discs occur when the soft inner material of a spinal disc bulges out through a tear in the outer layer. This can cause compression or irritation of nearby nerves and lead to neck pain and stiffness.
- Dehydrated discs: Dehydrated discs have lost some of their fluid content, which can make them less effective at cushioning the vertebrae and absorbing shock. This can cause greater stress on the joints in the neck, leading to neck pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.
- Stiff neck ligaments: These are neck ligaments that have lost their flexibility and elasticity. This can cause increased stress on the joints in the neck and contribute to the development of arthritis.
Arthritis is due to a combination of factors, including:
- wear and tear
- autoimmune disorders
- infections (rarely)
The treatment options for neck arthritis may depend on the severity of the condition and the specific symptoms you’re experiencing. Here are some possible treatment options:
- Medication: Depending on your pain severity, this may include over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or prescription medications, such as muscle relaxants, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), or corticosteroids.
- Physical therapy: A physical therapist can develop a customized exercise program to improve mobility, flexibility, and strength in the neck and surrounding muscles.
- Heat and cold therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help relieve pain and stiffness.
- Assistive devices: Using a neck brace or cervical collar can help support the neck and reduce pain during activities that aggravate neck arthritis symptoms.
- Lifestyle changes: Making changes to your daily habits, such as practicing good posture and taking frequent breaks during activities that strain the neck, can help prevent further damage to the joints.
- Surgery: In severe cases, surgery may be recommended to repair or replace damaged joints or to decompress nerves that are causing pain or numbness.
Neck arthritis exercises
It’s important to speak with a doctor, usually a rheumatologist, before engaging in neck exercise. This is to prevent serious injury from occurring. However, here are some exercises your doctor may recommend:
- Chin tucks: Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Gently tuck your chin in toward your chest and hold for 5 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10–15 times.
- Neck rotations: Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Slowly turn your head to the right, hold for 5 seconds, then turn your head to the left and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 10–15 times.
- Shoulder rolls: Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Slowly roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion, then backward in a circular motion. Repeat 10–15 times.
- Side bends: Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Slowly tilt your head to the right, bringing your right ear toward your right shoulder. Hold for 5 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat on the left side. Repeat 10–15 times on each side.
Neck arthritis is a common condition that can cause significant pain and stiffness and make it difficult to perform basic daily tasks.
While there’s no cure for neck arthritis, there are many treatment options available to help manage symptoms, including medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.
It’s important to work with a healthcare professional to develop an individualized treatment plan that addresses your specific needs and goals.