Bone spurs, or osteophytes, are not painful in and of themselves. Many people with cervical bone spurs experience no pain or neurological symptoms. However, symptoms 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.
Symptoms of Bone Spurs in the Neck
People who do experience problems associated with cervical bone spurs may exhibit a wide range of symptoms, including but not limited to:
- Dull neck pain. This type of pain can be a general achiness.
- Neck stiffness. The neck is likely sore and has reduced mobility, especially if experiencing increased pain when turning from side to side.
- Headaches. Cervicogenic headache, which can result if an osteophyte pushes against a cervical nerve root that radiates pain to the back of the head—and sometimes to the top or sides of the head and/or behind the eye.
Watch: Cervicogenic Headache Video
- Radicular pain. A searing or shock-like pain can radiate along the nerve pathway from the neck into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand. It is usually only on one side, but it can also be on both sides.
- Myelopathy. If the cervical bone spur starts going into the spinal canal and irritates the spinal cord, then a person may have additional neurological problems such as balance and/or coordination issues, excruciating shock-like pains through the arms and/or legs that might be made worse when bending forward, weakness or numbness anywhere beneath the neck, and possibly loss bowel or bladder control.
- Dysphagia. In rare cases, individuals can experience progressive difficulty swallowing 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.
Diagnosing Bone Spurs in the Neck
For most people, cervical osteophytes do not cause symptoms. In fact, it is common for people to have bone spurs show up on x-rays or MRIs without them being a cause of pain or other symptoms.
If someone is experiencing neck pain or symptoms of tingling, numbness, or weakness radiating into the shoulder, arm, or hand, then a doctor will likely start by taking a patient’s history and performing a physical exam. Oftentimes, non-surgical treatments of neck pain can begin without performing advanced diagnostics such as imaging studies or electrodiagnostic tests.
If symptoms persist or worsen, then advanced diagnostics might be used, which are the only way to confirm is osteophytes are present. Here are some common techniques used to determine if osteophytes might be a cause of pain for the patient:
- MRI scan. An MRI shows detailed cross-sections of the soft tissues and bones. It does not use radiation, and it tends to be better for showing possible damage to soft tissues—such as discs—than x-rays or CT scans. If the results of an MRI match up with what the patient is complaining about (for example, large osteophytes found near the C6 nerve correspond to the patient’s symptoms), then that may be all that is needed for the diagnosis. However, MRI findings do not always match up with the patient’s symptoms, so it is important to treat the patient and not the MRI.
- Electrodiagnostic testing. A nerve conduction study can test the nerves’ electrical activity in the arms; this test is usually followed by an electromyogram, which tests the muscles’ electrical activity. These tests can help determine the location of where a nerve might be having a problem, which could be useful if imaging studies have been inconclusive.
Other imaging studies and tests could also be used, but they are less common. For example, a somatosensory evoked potential can help determine if the spinal cord is being impinged.