Neck arthritis is a chronic and inflammatory disease of the discs and the bones in the neck. It often presents merely as a neck pain, but if left untreated, it begins to aggravate and degenerate over time.
Neck arthritis is mainly caused by three major types of arthritis that might affect the neck: rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and post-traumatic arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a systematic condition that affects the joints of both sides of the body. It is caused due to inflammation of the joint cartilage, leading to its destruction. Osteoarthritis is the most common arthritis affecting the neck and gradually leading to degeneration of the cartilage. It occurs due to wear and tear of the joints between the bones. Post-traumatic arthritis is caused by repeated stress like falls in contact sports or injury to the neck, leading to multiple hyperextensions and hyperflexions of the neck. This can develop years after the injury.
Arthritis is also heredity. The presence of certain genes can risk a person to develop neck arthritis. People after the age of 40 years are more prone to suffer from neck arthritis, because with age the healing ability decreases. Men develop neck arthritis more often than the pre-menopausal women, but the risk increases in women after the menopause. Any prior neck injury can also be one of the reason for developing neck arthritis.
Signs and Symptoms of Neck Arthritis
The most common signs of neck arthritis are pain and stiffness in the neck. These signs may worsen by standing as opposed to lying down due to the force of gravity on the spine. Sleeping can also aggravate the symptoms, as while sleeping, the muscles are relaxed and are not able to provide extra support to the spine. The patients may also suffer from some neurological signs like weakness, tingling, numbness and severe pain shooting down the arms, forearms, and hand. Headache is another symptom, usually experienced towards the back of the head. Patients may also experience dizziness, spinning, or loss of balance during the advanced stages of the disease due to decreased blood supply to the brain.
The physician may perform specific tests to evaluate the spinal cord or nerve compression. A strength test is one of these tests which is executed simply by gripping the physician's finger to evaluate the discrepancies in the strength between the patient's hands. Two-point discrimination test or pin-prick test is another test to evaluate the touch sensation in the extremities. The physician may also ask the patient to walk a straight path, gait testing, to assess whether the walk is clumsy or unsteady.
An X-ray is the initial test that the patient is often asked to go through as it helps the physician to assess the bony structure of the vertebra by visualizing any degeneration or bony overgrowth (osteophyte) formation. It also visualizes the variances in the size of the intervertebral discs, and possible compression into foraminal space where the nerve roots exit the spinal cord. CT myelography is another test which creates cross-sectional, three-dimensional images that demonstrate the soft tissues of the neck. Similarly, MRI is a non-invasive procedure that uses magnetic and radio waves to create views of the soft tissues in the neck with optimum resolution.
Treatment for Neck Arthritis
The treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms and the underlying causes that are identified. In most of the cases, neck arthritis responds well to exercises, but make sure the exercises are prescribed by a physician. Wearing a collarbone figure-eight harness at night, when the muscles of the neck relax and are not supporting the spinal structures will give extra support to the neck and relieve some of the inflammation. An anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritis diet can also be helpful in treating the symptoms. Heat, massage, ice and exercises are usually sufficient to treat simple cases of neck arthritis. Other treatments for neck arthritis include trigger point injections, where the anesthetic is injected into a painful muscular band in the neck. For patients suffering from chronic neck pain, radio frequency neurotomy may be performed. Some other medications for the treatment of neck arthritis include Tylenol and Advil which should be taken under the supervision of the physician.
Some home remedies that you may apply, include using neck pillows while you sleep and a hot compress pads. Neck pillows while sleeping provide the much-required support to the neck. Heating pads placed on the affected site could prove helpful as well. Make sure that you place a small towel over the neck area before you introduce the heat pad. Rest assured as this would not interfere with the heat delivering process; it only saves your skin from turning red due to irritation or excess heat compression. Contrarily, you may also opt for cold compress. Again, ensure that you have a towel placed below the cold pack as this may cause the area to lose sensation and feel numb. This is a temporary condition, however it's an uncomfortable almost tingling feeling that feels hard to get by.
The pain due to neck arthritis is not always restricted to the neck area, but can spread to the upper back, shoulder blades, chest wall, arms and the head. This is mainly due to the compression of the nerves in the neck that the pain gets manifested into other areas of the body.