Cervical osteoarthritis, or neck arthritis, is a relatively common condition. To clear up confusion around this topic, here’s what you should know:

Cervical osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage in the neck joints break down and no longer facilitate smooth movement between bone. Cervical osteoarthritis doesn't always cause pain, but when it does, pain typically begins gradually and feels stiff and achy. Read Cervical Osteoarthritis (Neck Arthritis)

1. Cervical osteoarthritis may be caused by several factors

Cervical osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that lines your neck joints wears down over time, which causes bone-on-bone friction and osteophytes (bone spurs) to develop. This process leads to inflammation and pain.

See Cervical Osteophytes: Bone Spurs in the Neck

Some evidence suggests that genetics play a role in the development of osteoarthritis. Sustaining a neck injury, working a physically demanding job, and being overweight all may also contribute to the onset of symptomatic osteoarthritis. There’s no single preventable cause.

Watch: Cervical Facet Osteoarthritis Video

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2. Cervical osteoarthritis pain begins gradually

In many cases, cervical osteoarthritis doesn’t cause pain. If pain does occur, it typically begins gradually, not suddenly, and comes from the inflammatory response to arthritic changes. If your neck pain quickly escalates from non-existent to severe, it’s not likely to signal cervical osteoarthritis, but something else. Sometimes the sharp pain is a muscle spasm reacting to underlying arthritis.

See Chronic Neck Pain: What Condition Is Causing My Neck Pain?

The pain from cervical osteoarthritis typically feels achy and stiff rather than sharp. It can be especially painful in the morning before you have a chance to get up and move around. And the pain may come back again at the end of the day. These and other symptoms may progress and get worse over time.

See Cervical Osteoarthritis Symptoms

3. There’s no surefire imaging method to diagnose cervical osteoarthritis

No single imaging test to determine whether or not you have cervical osteoarthritis currently exists. X-rays and MRIs are often obtained if the pain is chronic, and these tests commonly reveal a certain degree of osteoarthritis in people over the age of 55, but they can’t diagnose the cause of the pain.

See Diagnosing Cervical Osteoarthritis

While a diagnosis is sometimes made by reviewing a person’s medical history and performing a medical examination, the doctor may need to use image-guided injections to identify the source of the pain.

See Medial Branch Nerve Blocks

4. Cervical osteoarthritis is often confused with rheumatoid arthritis

Cervical osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can both occur in the cervical spine, and their pain may feel similar, but the pathologies are very different.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease and usually accompanied by other symptoms, including fatigue and loss of appetite. In addition, rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to develop in the upper part of the neck, while cervical osteoarthritis often occurs lower in the neck.

See What is Rheumatoid Arthritis? on Arthritis-health.com

5. Cervical osteoarthritis can’t be “cured,” but symptoms can be treated

Cervical osteoarthritis tends to get worse as people age. But even as the bony changes worsen, the inflammation can be treated and often eliminated.

See Cervical Osteoarthritis Treatment

Treatment options for cervical osteoarthritis vary and depend on the severity of the symptoms. Typically, doctors recommend non-surgical treatments, such as regular exercise, rest, heat/ice therapy, over-the-counter medications, good posture, and ergonomic workstations. The doctor may also suggest physical therapy, losing weight, and quitting smoking.

See Physical Therapy for Neck Pain Relief

Targeted injections can be effective, and for some people, a procedure called radiofrequency rhizotomy for arthritic facet joints in the neck may be recommended.

See Injections for Back Pain Relief

If cervical osteoarthritis progresses to the point of compressing a nerve root or the spinal cord, there may be additional problems with pain going into the arms or legs, numbness, weakness, and/or coordination issues. While such cases are rare, surgical options may be considered when non-surgical options have not effectively controlled these symptoms.

See What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?

These facts don’t represent a comprehensive guide to cervical osteoarthritis, but it is hoped they offer a helpful starting point on your journey to pain relief.

Learn more:

Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Neck Cracking and Grinding: What Does It Mean?