Also termed as cervical spondylosis, arthritis of the upper cervical spine results from a slow and steady degeneration of cervical vertebrae, followed by the destruction of cartilage that absorbs shock and protects the spine discs, joints and bones from being worn out due to the daily wear and tear that they undergo. The cerebrospinal fluid found between the discs of the spinal cord is lost and the space between the vertebrae called foramen narrows down, rendering it stiff and dysfunctional.
As we age, the cervical spine gradually breaks down and loses it functionality, thereby making cervical arthritis a common phenomenon in middle-aged and elderly people. Read on to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of cervical arthritis that can help you begin your treatment during the early stages for getting back on the road of recovery at a faster rate.
Symptoms of Cervical Arthritis
Although, the rate of incidence of cervical spondylosis is higher in men than in women, the symptoms of cervical arthritis are more or less similar in both the genders. The anatomical complexity of the neck gives rise to a wide range of symptoms that can be characterized as follows:
The damage that occurs in the neck joint due to the degeneration of spinal discs leads to chronic neck pain, which is the most prominent sign of cervical arthritis. Even though, the neck serves as the point of origin from which the pain emanates, this pain does not stay restricted to the neck. Besides affecting the different areas of the neck such as the middle portion of the neck, the pain also spreads to other body parts and is most often manifested in the ears, the back or side of the head, central part of the head located behind the eye, base of the skull, shoulder blades, arms and the upper chest.
While most people experience persistent neck pain, some people experience sudden flare-ups, even during the period of inactivity due to inexplicable reasons. Due to the permanent state of contraction that the neck muscles undergo, the neck pain gets exacerbated when one tries to move. Also, standing as opposed to lying flat on a surface, worsens the pain due to the gravitational pull experienced by the spine. Neck pain can often interfere with sleep as the neck muscles relax during the night and fail to provide enough support to the spine.
The loss of cerebrospinal fluid, which plays a pivotal role in lubricating the vertebral column, leads to the formation of rough surfaces between the small facet joints and the spinal discs that separate the vertebrae from each other.
Hence, the flexibility of the upper portion of the spine is lost, thereby limiting the range of motion of the neck. Neck stiffness is most often experienced after a night’s rest or even after a short period of rest or inactivity.
The narrowing of the space between the vertebral column causes compression of the nerves that innervate the neck through the spinal cord. This in turn, places extra pressure on the nerve roots, thus leading to the inflammation and destruction of nerve fibers. Pinching of these crucial nerves results in muscle weakness, loss of sensation or numbness, burning, tingling in the hands and feet and a shooting, electric pain down the neck, arms, forearms, hands, fingers, legs and feet.
Inflammation and irritation of the spinal nerves leads to involuntary contraction of the muscles or muscle spasms in the neck, shoulder and upper arms. This makes the neck tender to touch and leads to the inability to turn the head completely or bend the neck, which could become very problematic while driving.
Dizziness and Blackouts
In the advanced stages of cervical arthritis, dizziness is often accompanied by a feeling of spinning or loss of balance. Headaches often begin at the back of the head just above the neck and spread towards the top of the forehead. This condition occurring in about 5-10% of patients suffering from cervical arthritis is often termed as cervical myelopathy.
It is caused by the compression of nerves and dilation of blood vessels, which not only places a lot of pressure on the spinal cord, but also obstructs the flow of blood to the brain, thus leading to the lack of co-ordination, dizziness, gait disturbances, weakness and clumsiness of the hands and feet.
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Crepitus refers to the grinding or clicking sound that is felt while moving the neck. It occurs due to the rubbing of the rough surfaces between two joints of a cervical spine. This uneven contact between two roughened surfaces leads to a cracking or a popping sound, which can be a major source of pain and discomfort in patients suffering from cervical arthritis.
Cervical radiculopathy is caused due to the pinching and pressing of spinal nerves by bone spurs, as they exit leave the bones of the vertebral column.
This leads to irritation and the sensation of pins and needles pricking in the arms or hands. If left untreated, the pressure on the spinal nerves builds ups and leads to weakness and loss of sensation in the hands.
Less Common Symptoms
Other less common symptoms include difficulty in swallowing or dysphagia, a persistent ringing sound in the ears termed as tinnitus, pseudoangina or a chest pain similar to heart stroke and the inability to walk with ease due to the pain and weakness in feet and legs. In addition, abnormal reflexes and incontinence or the lack of control over bowel and bladder movement are often experienced in the advanced stages of cervical arthritis.
The aforementioned symptoms worsen in the morning and at the end of the day, but are most often relieved by adequate amount of rest. Even though, cervical arthritis affects people over the age of 50, due to the natural process of aging, it is not uncommon in the younger generations, who have experienced back injuries due to road accidents and sports injuries. Hence, it is extremely important to stay vigilant about the appearance of any of the aforementioned symptoms to rule out the possibility of developing cervical arthritis earlier in life.