Osteoarthritis In the Neck - Spotting The Early Signs...

What Makes Your Neck Unique And What You Need To Know

The Short Answer – Your neck is in pain on a regular basis – is it muscular injury or is it osteoarthritis? With no cure to neck osteoarthritis (aka cervical osteoarthritis), knowing what to look for in your neck is essential.

In this article we examine the causes, early signs and diagnosis of osteoarthritis in the neck – so you wont make the mistake of leaving it until it’s too late.

What Is Osteoarthritis In The Neck?

Osteoarthritis in the neck concerns the damage of the joints, discs and vertebrae in the cervical part of your spine (your neck).


For a whole variety of reasons, the fluid functioning of the joint becomes compromised, with cartilage (padding) between the bones breaking down.

Eventually bone rubs against bone with the result that tiny shards break off floating in the synovial fluid (pockets of fluid around your joints designed to help with lubrication).

Sometimes that will also lead to bone spurs (osteophytes) forming – that is sharp bony growths projecting our from existing bones.

This then reduces the already limited amount of room available in your neck for the spinal nerves that branch off the spinal cord.

The end result is frequently pinched or compressed spinal nerves that can not only affect your neck, but the rest of your body as well.

According to a study in ‘PLOS ONE’, osteoarthritis of the neck is a very significant reason behind missed days at work. 

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What Makes Osteoarthritis In The Neck Different?

As we have covered in other articles, it is only old thinking that considers osteoarthritis purely a disease concerning ‘wear and tear’ of the joint.

Once referred to as ‘the wear and tear disease’ it was thought it developed purely as cartilage (the cushion between the main bones in your joints) would get worn through – leading to a rubbing of bone on bone..

Today however, we understand osteoarthritis to be a much wider problem, concerning the entire joint matrix – not just the cartilage, but the health of all the bones, supporting muscle, ligaments and nerves around the joint in question.

That is why we are dealing with the neck in isolation – because each joint has its own unique set of risk factors and challenges when recognising and treating osteoarthritis.

The neck itself is a particularly delicate part of the human anatomy. While being highly flexible, it is perhaps the weakest part of the spinal cord that delivers all of your bodies’ messages to your brain.

In your back, your spinal cord is protected by larger vertebrae (segments of spinal bone) and a rib cage on one side – as well as numerous muscles and supporting organs.

By the time your spinal cord reaches your neck, the vertebrae have decreased in size/ density and the surrounding matrix of muscles etc is greatly reduced.

This is relevant because it makes your neck especially vulnerable to injury. Not as much as your knees for example (but they don’t carry your spinal cord), but significantly more than your spine.

And injury is a major cause for developing osteoarthritis in the future.

The key difference with developing osteoarthritis in your neck is the knock-on effect it will have for the rest of your body.

Osteoarthritis in the knee or hip may stop you doing activities that involve that joint, such as walking or playing sports – but osteoarthritis in the neck may prevent you from doing a lot more.

This includes walking/ playing sports, but also may affect your overall boy strength, cause you to lose balance or leave you in bed with crippling headaches.

Unfortunately, as with all forms of osteoarthritis, there is no cure.

Catching it early is the key, because the best you can plan for is to stop the symptoms progressing and limit the effect of any existing ones.

The sooner you recognise the signs, get it diagnosed and start taking active steps to halt its progression, the far better your overall outlook will be.

What Causes Osteoarthritis In The Neck?

Weight. If ‘wear and tear’ was the only factor in osteoarthritis, bodyweight should make much less difference to the neck.

However, being overweight also causes more overall bodily inflammation and this is known to damage joints including your neck.

Genetics. All forms of osteoarthritis have been found to have a disposition for being passed on. There is no guarantee you will develop OA of course, but there is an increased likelihood if you parents/ grandparents etc suffered too.

Injury. A tear in the cartilage or damage to the supporting muscles will lead to degeneration in the joints of you neck much faster.

Occupation. Jobs that involve lots of repetitive actions such as typing or roles that implant excess stress such as heavy lifting can all increase your chances of developing osteoarthritis in the neck.

Age. All osteoarthritis is linked to age. Not just because of the wear and tear (that still has some considerable impact), but also because your surrounding matrix of muscles, ligaments and tendons will all grow weaker and less flexible with age.

Smoking. There is limited direct evidence that smoking causes osteoarthritis in the neck (Osteoarthritis and Cartilage

Key Signs And Symptoms Of Osteoarthritis In The Neck

The main symptom of osteoarthritis in the neck is, not surprisingly, neck pain. This can be mild or severe and vary at different times.

The more distinguishing factor is where the pain comes from (your neck) and specifically the activities that cause it. It is worth actually keeping a quick note when you start feeling pain in your neck and what makes it worse before visiting a doctor.

Having this information to hand, will make an accurate diagnosis much easier.

The main early signs or symptoms to look out for with osteoarthritis in your neck include –

  • Pain that is made worse by looking up or down.
  • Pain that is made worse by doing something for a long time – such as driving or watching TV
  • Pain that gets worse during the day
  • Pain subsides if you rest during a flare up
  • Pain that sometimes radiates
  • Muscle spasms in your neck (or even in your shoulders)
  • Headaches (especially in the back of your head)
  • Weakness in your hands or legs
  • A grinding or crunching feeling when you turn your neck
  • A stiff neck (especially when you first wake up)
  • Loss of balance
  • Trouble walking
  • Disrupts your normal sleep pattern, waking you up in the middle of the night
  • Numbness in the neck
  • Radiculopathy and Myelopathy (see below)

Radiculopathy and myelopathy are symptoms common in people with osteoarthritis in the neck.

Basically, radiculopathy occurs when pressure is put on the spinal nerve root. Myelopathy is very similar, but is a disease that affects the spinal cord.

The main symptoms of both are pain, numbness, weakness and electrical sensations in other parts of the body.

Other potential causes (but with research still required), include poor posture, anxiety, depression, according to Alan Binder, writing a clinical review in the BMJ 

How Is Osteoarthritis In The Neck Diagnosed?

Medical History Check. After discussing the pain, where it hurts and when it hurts, they will move on to a checklist analysis. This is when your doctor looks for all the tell-tale signs that you are in the ‘high risk’ category for osteoarthritis.

They will consider your age, gender and bodyweight before asking you about a family history of osteoarthritis and what injuries (if any) you have had to your neck in the past.

Physical Examination. At this stage your doctor will be looking at the range of motion in your neck, any sensations when you do move and which actions cause the most pain.

Blood Tests. These results never help with diagnosing osteoarthritis directly, but can help to rule out other potential diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, where rheumatoid factor can be tested for.

X-Rays. An X-ray is used to check for alignment issues in your neck and potential narrowing of the space between joints, although this can be difficult to spot.

MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging can often be used to produce better images, when the results of an x-ray are inconclusive.

CT Scan with Myelogram. This is more of a last resort, but involves a dye being injected into the spinal canal to assess the neural structures.

EMG (Electromyography). If nerve compression is already suspected, an EMG can be used to test the electrical conduction of nerves from the neck to the arm.

The Final Word –

If you think you might have osteoarthritis in the neck, it really is key to visit your doctor. Early diagnosis will give you a massive advantage in stopping it’s progress and managing the existing symptoms.

Check out our page on treatments for osteoarthritis in the neck if you are diagnosed with this condition. Even if you are not yet, but would be in the ‘high risk’ category based on potential causes, then it is worth reading our tips on how to prevent osteoarthritis.

Small changes early can make a big difference to the potential outcome further down the line.

If it is left too long, the damage will become permanent and symptoms such as inability to walk, balance or grip objects will be non-reversible.

Hopefully, you will have a good awareness of what to consider if you feel a pain in your neck – don’t just leave it. With no easy ‘replacement surgery’ available for your neck, you really only have one – it’s essential you look after it.

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References Used –

1. Felson DT, Zhang Y. (March 2015). Smoking and osteoarthritis: a review of the evidence and its implications. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage.
2. Eric C. Sayre, Linda C. Li, Jacek A. Kopec, John M. Esdaile, Sherry Bar, Jolanda Cibere. (May 2010). The Effect of Disease Site (Knee, Hip, Hand, Foot, Lower Back or Neck) on Employment Reduction Due to Osteoarthritis. PLOS ONE.
3. Allan I Binder. (March 2007). Cervical spondylosis and neck pain. The BMJ

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