Arthritis in the Neck: Is Permanent Nerve Damage in My Future?

If you’ve been diagnosed with neck arthritis, it’s important to understand that the effects extend beyond immediate discomfort and restricted mobility. One significant concern is the potential for cervical stenosis, in which arthritic bones press against the spinal cord. If left untreated, cervical stenosis can lead to a cascade of problems, including the possibility of permanent nerve damage. Here are the key things you need to know about managing arthritis in the neck today, understanding its progression, the risk of cervical stenosis, and preventing long-term nerve damage with the right treatments.

Managing Neck Arthritis

To stay as healthy as possible with neck arthritis, you need proactive management for your current symptoms and to reduce the risk of future problems. Here are some strategies to effectively manage arthritis in the neck:

  • Professional Guidance: Consult with an orthopedic spine surgeon about your arthritis. With the help of a professional, you can learn more about the severity of your condition and what treatment options are available to you.
  • Physical Therapy and Exercise: Physical therapy and targeted exercises under the guidance of a professional can help to improve flexibility, strengthen the neck muscles, and enhance overall neck function. This may involve gentle stretches, range-of-motion exercises, and neck strengthening exercises.
  • Pain Management: Even if pain is not a significant symptom now, in most cases pain management will become a priority to you at some point. Talk to your healthcare provider about pain management techniques, such as over-the-counter pain medications, prescribed medications, or other pain relief therapies.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Adopting certain lifestyle modifications can contribute to better neck health. Maintain good posture, especially when sitting for extended periods or using electronic devices. Use ergonomic pillows and supportive furniture to reduce strain on the neck. Avoid repetitive motions or activities that exacerbate neck pain.

Cervical Stenosis and the Progression of Neck Arthritis

Neck arthritis is a degenerative condition that tends to worsen over time. The bones and discs of the cervical spine can become enlarged and press against the spinal cord, leading to a condition called cervical stenosis. This can escalate symptoms and lead to long-term implications, so it is very important to monitor neck arthritis and its current progression.

Cervical stenosis can cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain, weakness, or numbness in the shoulders, arms, hands, or fingers
  • Issues with balance and dexterity
  • Problems using your hands, including poor coordination, reduced fine motor skills, and dysfunctional or brisk reflexes
  • Paralysis in one or more limbs (severe or untreated cases)
  • Other bodily function issues, such as incontinence
  • Symptoms tend to worsen slowly over time, but may go through periods of remaining stable or rapidly progressing
  • Neck pain that is dull or sharp, sometimes accompanied by headaches and stiffness
  • Symptoms may flare during certain activities or movements
  • Symptoms are most common in patients over the age of 50, but can present in younger patients.
  • Symptoms may be confused or misdiagnosed with other conditions (such as carpal tunnel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, or multiple sclerosis)

If stenosis is left untreated, the pressure on the nerves can indeed cause permanent nerve damage. But with early intervention and appropriate treatment, patients can minimize their risk and prevent this negative outcome.

Preventing Long-Term Nerve Damage with the Right Treatments

Patients who have not developed cervical stenosis should receive regular monitoring and nonsurgical treatments to help manage symptoms of neck arthritis. All treatments should be conducted only under the guidance and recommendation of a medical professional. Examples of nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Lifestyle modifications: Improving posture, avoiding strenuous activities, and modifying sitting and sleeping positions may improve symptoms.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy for the neck can improve its strength and flexibility, which may in turn improve posture and reduce the likelihood of painful muscle spasms.
  • Medications: NSAIDs and neuropathic pain medications can help relieve inflammation and nerve pain.
  • Steroid Injections: Injections can be administered to alleviate inflammation.

Treatments for Cervical Stenosis

For diagnosed cases of cervical stenosis due to neck arthritis, surgery is often the only effective treatment. Surgery can provide healing, prevent symptoms from worsening and causing permanent nerve damage, and improve your quality of life and function. On the other hand, failing to treat this condition can allow the spinal cord cells to die, leading to a more severe condition called cervical myelopathy. Individuals with cervical myelopathy may eventually experience paralysis or severe loss of function, so it is absolutely worth considering surgical intervention!

Surgical treatments for cervical stenosis aim to decompress the spinal cord, alleviate nerve compression, and restore stability to the neck. Techniques include:

  • Anterior cervical decompression and fusion (ACDF): Surgical removal of damaged or degenerative discs that are compressing the spinal cord and fusing one or more levels of the spine together to maintain stability
  • Cervical disc replacement: Surgical removal of a damaged disc and insertion of a new artificial disc to provide cushion while maintaining motion
  • Cervical laminectomy/Posterior cervical decompression: Removal or restructuring of the lamina and sometimes one or more enlarged facet joints to relieve pressure, possibly with or without fusing one or more levels of the spine

Arthritis in the neck can have serious long-term implications, but by understanding how it can progress to cervical stenosis and getting the right treatment and monitoring, you can manage your condition proactively and effectively. With help, you can enjoy a healthy life for years to come.

Dr. Stephen Pehler is a highly skilled and board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon who can help you get an accurate diagnosis, effective treatments, and regular monitoring for your neck arthritis. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Pehler, call (303) 695-6060 or contact us online today.