More than half of the people over the age of 60 have osteophytes, or bone spurs, somewhere in their bodies. Osteophytes in the spine are a normal sign of aging and are not a cause for concern unless they result in pain or neurological symptoms. Cervical osteophytes are bone spurs that grow on any of the seven vertebrae in the cervical spine (neck), involving the spine from the base of the skull to the base of the neck (C1 – C7 vertebrae).
Cervical Osteophyte Formation (Cervical Spondylosis)
Cervical osteophyte formation typically occurs when ligaments and tendons around the bones and joints in the cervical spine are damaged or inflamed. The inflamed or damaged tissue abnormally influences surrounding bone growth (though hard, bones are constantly renewing, like fingernails and hair). As a result, new bone cells are deposited where they would not normally grow.
The inflamed or damaged tissue that stimulates cervical osteophyte growth is often caused by cervical osteoarthritis, a degradation in the neck joints that occurs in many older people. These joints include the disc spaces themselves (a modified joint) and the facet joints, and this condition of cervical osteophyte formation is referred to as cervical spondylosis. Other types of arthritis, traumatic injury, and poor posture can also lead to osteophyte formation.
Symptoms of Bone Spurs in the Neck
The term “bone spurs” elicits images of radiating spikes, but bone spurs (osteophytes) are actually rounded and scalloped. The outer edge of a vertebra with bone spurs can resemble the hem of a ruffled dress or dripped wax built-up at the bottom of a candle.
Bone spurs, or osteophytes, are not painful in and of themselves. Many people with cervical bone spurs experience no pain or neurological symptoms. However, neurological symptoms or pain may occur if the osteophytes encroach upon the individual spinal nerves, the spinal cord itself, the vertebral discs, or the blood vessels in the region of the cervical vertebral column. People who do experience symptoms associated with cervical bone spurs may exhibit a wide range of symptoms, including but not limited to:
- Dull neck pain
- Neck stiffness
- Radiating pain into the shoulders and/or arms
- Numbness or tingling in one or both arms and/or hands
- Progressive weakness in one or both arms and/or hands without or without impairment of finger and hand dexterity.
- In rare cases, individuals can experience progressive difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or breathing.
Such symptoms as those described above are similar or the same as those that can be caused by a number of other neurological and/or spinal conditions. An accurate diagnosis is necessary in order to successfully manage or treat the associated symptoms of pain or neurological abnormalities. The neurological abnormalities that most often lead to surgical treatment, such as a nerve root or spinal cord decompression surgery with or without spinal fusion, include radiculopathy from nerve root impingement and myelopathy resulting from spinal cord impingement or compression.