Spine Surgery

March 21, 2022

Is Your Chronic Neck Pain Caused by Osteoarthritis?

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Chronic neck pain is common, particularly in the aging population. Often, it isn’t easy to treat until you know what causes it. This condition makes it difficult to participate in any number of activities, including everything from using a computer to participating in sports. Neck pain is often accompanied by stiffness or tension that makes the pain worse, creating a cycle of chronic pain that may trigger headaches as well as shoulder and back pain.

One of the most common causes of chronic neck pain is osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis?

A form of degenerative arthritis, osteoarthritis is the wearing down of the joints in the vertebrae. Over time, the cartilage between the vertebrae deteriorates. Your body reacts by forming bone spurs that grind the vertebrae together, causing pain. Eventually, the bony growths begin to irritate the surrounding tissue and cause pain, inflammation, and poor range of movement. Osteoarthritis can be quite painful and debilitating if not treated properly.

Osteoarthritis develops as people age due to their lifetime use of the vertebrae and muscles in the neck. Because your neck muscles are used all day, every day, they are constantly moving, shifting, and realigning the vertebrae in your neck. Over time, the constant moving about and repositioning of the neck causes excessive wear and tear, leading to chronic neck pain and inflammation that can drag on for weeks or years.

Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

Waking up with a stiff neck occasionally due to sleeping in the wrong position or looking at your computer all day is normal. If your neck pain isn’t constant and only lasts a day or two, applying ice or heat and taking an over-the-counter pain medication may help. However, if your neck pain has gotten worse over time or has lasted more than six weeks, it is considered chronic and needs the help of a medical professional.

Symptoms of chronic neck pain include:

  • Neck pain that may worsen when you hold your head too long in one position
  • Neck pain that is more severe when holding your head up (instead of lying down with neck support)
  • Headaches
  • Tightness or spasms in the neck muscles
  • Decreased range of motion
  • A grinding or clicking sensation when moving the neck

Any time your neck pain or stiffness lasts more than a few weeks without relief, you should see your doctor. If you develop additional symptoms, you may need to see your doctor immediately. Symptoms that call for an immediate appointment or trip to the ER include sudden worsening of your pain, pain triggered by an accident or injury, or pain that spreads to the arms or legs. Numbness and tingling can also signify that your chronic neck pain needs immediate attention.

Diagnosing Chronic Neck Pain

If you suffer from chronic neck pain, request an appointment to see one of the physicians at Arkansas Surgical Hospital. You will get a physical exam and various tests—such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI—to determine the amount of damage and whether you have osteoarthritis or another illness or injury.

Other possible causes of chronic neck pain include:

Strained Muscles

People who hunch over a computer, talk on the phone for long stretches of time, or perform repetitive activities requiring the neck muscles can easily cause a strain, leading to tightness and pain. Minor strains can be caused by something as simple as sleeping in the wrong position or grinding your teeth. Muscle strains are usually resolved with ice or heat, rest, and over-the-counter medication. For severe strains, physical or occupational therapy may be needed.

Compressed Nerves

Bone spurs from osteoarthritis or herniated discs can also cause pain by compressing specific nerves in and around the spinal cord. The pain can be almost unbearable when a nerve coming off the spinal cord is pinched or constricted.

Illness

Chronic or long-term diseases can contribute to neck pain. These include rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, or meningitis. If you suspect any of these illnesses, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Non-Surgical Treatments for Neck Pain

Some neck pain, even chronic pain, can be alleviated without surgery. Therapeutic treatments might include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications
  • Prescription muscle relaxers
  • Use of a TENS (transcutaneous nerve stimulation) unit
  • Traction to gently stretch the area and realign the vertebrae in the neck

Steroid Injections

If all other forms of pain relief have been tried and failed, your doctor or a pain specialist may recommend steroid injections into the area of discomfort. Lidocaine may also be injected for faster-acting, more immediate relief.

Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Neck

When all other options have failed to relieve your chronic neck pain, your doctor may suggest surgery to treat the source of the pain. Osteoarthritis causes the discs in the cervical spine to deteriorate, leading to compression. Bone spurs and ragged bony growth on the edges of the vertebrae themselves are all forms of osteoarthritis, and surgeries to treat them vary.

Cervical Discectomy

During this surgery, one or more discs between the cervical vertebrae are removed. Cervical discectomy is most successful when performed on patients younger than 50 years of age whose pain is caused by a herniated disc. This surgery is done through the front of the neck (anterior discectomy) or, in rare cases, through the back (posterior discectomy) if the bone has disintegrated and moved to the back of the neck.

Cervical Laminectomy

If your neck pain is caused by a narrowing of the spinal column rather than bone spurs or a herniated disc, a laminectomy may help. This surgery opens up the spinal column, relieving pressure on the spinal cord and surrounding nerves.

Contact Arkansas Surgical Hospital Today

Your doctor can determine whether your neck pain is the temporary result of an acute injury or illness or whether you’ve developed osteoarthritis. In either situation, the skilled physicians at Arkansas Surgical Hospital can evaluate your pain level and recommend the right treatment plan for you. Contact us at (501) 758-8000 for help scheduling an appointment with one of our specialists.

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