Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Cervical spondylosis is chronic cervical disc degeneration with herniation of disc material, calcification and osteophytic outgrowths.
After back pain, simple neck pain (pain varying over time and with activity) is the most frequent musculoskeletal cause of consultation in primary care worldwide. As with simple back pain, it is multifactorial in origin, reflecting poor posture, muscle strain and sporting and occupational activities as well as psychological factors. Cervical spondylosis undoubtedly contributes to this burden but may also cause:
- Radiculopathy due to compression, stretching or angulation of the cervical nerve roots.
- Myelopathy due to compression, compromised blood supply or recurring minor trauma to the cord.
- Neck pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal complaints. About two thirds of the population will experience neck pain at some point in their lives.
- Women are affected almost twice as much as men.
- Prevalence rises with age for men and women and is the highest in the age group between 50-59 years.
- The incidence of neck pain in general practice has been estimated to be between 18 and 23 per 1,000 registered patients per year.
- The percentage of people in whom neck pain becomes chronic is generally thought to be about 10%.
- X-ray findings suggest that the majority of men older than 50 years and women older than 60 years have evidence of degenerative changes in the cervical spine. The boundary between normal ageing and disease process is difficult to define.
- Both sexes are affected equally but problems begin earlier in males.
- Cervical pain worsened by movement.
- Referred pain (occiput, between the shoulder blades, upper limbs).
- Retro-orbital or temporal pain (from C1 to C2).
- Cervical stiffness - reversible or irreversible.
- Vague numbness, tingling or weakness in the upper limbs.
- Poor balance.
- Limited range of movement (forward flexion, backward extension, lateral flexion and rotation to both sides).
- Minor neurological changes like inverted supinator jerks (unless complicated by myelopathy or radiculopathy).
- Poorly localised tenderness.
Suspect this where there is unilateral neck, shoulder, or arm pain approximating to a dermatome. There may be accompanying changes in sensation or weakness in related muscles. Note: pain or paraesthesia radiating into the arm is a nonspecific sign for nerve root pain.
- There may be postural asymmetry with the patient flexing their head to decompress the nerve root.
- Neck movement may be restricted.
- Dural irritation can be demonstrated with the Spurling test (flexion of the neck laterally, rotation and pressure on the top of the patient's head) - typical radicular pain is reproduced if the test is positive.
- The most commonly affected nerve roots are between the C5 to C7 levels.
- Sensory symptoms (shooting pains, numbness, hyperaesthesia) are more common than weakness.
- Reflexes are usually diminished at the appropriate level (biceps - C5/C6, supinator - C5/C6, or triceps - C7).
See also the separate Neurological Examination of the Upper Limbs article.
- Age of onset <20 or >55 years.
- Weakness in more than one myotome.
- Sensory loss in more than one dermatome.
- Intractable or increasing pain.
- Fever, night sweats.
- Unexpected weight loss.
- History of inflammatory arthritis, malignancy, infection, tuberculosis, HIV infection, drug dependency, or immunosuppression.
- Excruciating pain.
- Intractable night pain.
- Cervical lymphadenopathy.
- Exquisite tenderness over a vertebral body.
- Insidious progression.
- Gait disturbance +/- clumsy hands.
- Loss of sexual, bladder or bowel function (often a late sign).
- Lhermitte's sign (neck flexion causes 'electric shock'-type sensation radiating down the spine).
- Objective neurological deficit (upper motor neurone signs in the legs (eg, up-going plantars, hyperreflexia, clonus, spasticity); lower motor neurone signs in the arms (eg, atrophy/fasciculation, hyporeflexia).
- Sensory changes are variable, with loss of vibration and joint position sense seen more clearly in the hands than in the feet.
- History of, or risk factors for, osteoporosis.
- History of recent violent trauma or fall from a height (note that even minor trauma may be significant in those with osteoporosis).
- History of neck surgery.
- Dizziness when moving the neck; drop attacks (suggestive of vascular disease).
- Other nonspecific neck pain lesions - eg, acute neck strain, postural neck ache or whiplash.
- Malignancy - primary tumours, secondary deposits or myeloma.
- Infections - eg, osteomyelitis or tuberculosis.
- Mechanical lesions - disc prolapse.
- Psychogenic neck pain.
- Inflammatory disease - eg, rheumatoid arthritis.
- Metabolic diseases - eg, Paget's disease of bone, osteoporosis.
Most patients do not need further investigation and the diagnosis is made on clinical grounds alone.
- Plain X-ray of cervical spine showing formation of osteophytes, narrowing of disc spaces with encroachment of intervertebral foraminae. This is not diagnostic, as these findings are common in normal middle-aged patients.
- Patients with neurological abnormality will need magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the cervical spine at an early stage, particularly if they have progressive myelopathy, radiculopathy or intractable pain.
There is little robust evidence to support many of the commonly used treatments. Most GPs will employ a 'wait and see' strategy, expecting a favourable natural course supported by medication, or referral to a physiotherapist.
- For the first 3-4 weeks, provide reassurance that neck pain is common and is likely to resolve.
- The patient should be advised to keep active, maintain their normal activities and to avoid the use of a cervical collar.
- However, one study of patients with recent-onset cervical radiculopathy found that a semi-hard cervical collar and rest for three to six weeks or physiotherapy accompanied by home exercises for six weeks reduced neck and arm pain substantially compared with a wait and see policy in the early phase of cervical radiculopathy.
- Strongly discourage prolonged absence from work.
- Advise against driving if the range of neck movement is restricted.
- Patients should be advised to use only one firm pillow at night.
- Identify and address psychosocial factors that increase the risk of chronicity and disability - eg, underlying concerns about the neck pain, unrealistic expectations of treatment, disabling sickness behaviour, mood disorders.
- Similarly, identify and address workplace-associated risks for developing neck pain. Offering postural advice on daily activities, work and hobbies may be helpful for some patients.
- Where symptoms are more prolonged (4-12 weeks), refer to physiotherapy for a multimodal treatment strategy (see under 'Mechanical', below) and consider referral to a psychologist or occupational health doctor.
- Where symptoms have become chronic (>12 weeks), continue examining psychosocial factors, consider referral to a pain clinic or, where there are nerve root symptoms, consider referral for assessment for surgical intervention.
- Although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and quality of life, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse.
- Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up.
- Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up.
- There is a risk of very rare but serious adverse events for manipulation - eg, arterial dissection, myelopathy, vertebral disc extrusion and epidural haematoma.
- Yoga, the Pilates method, and the Alexander Technique all improve neck posture but their value in treating neck pain is uncertain.
- No high-quality evidence has been found for the benefit of neck exercises for mechanical neck disorders, indicating that there is still uncertainty about the effectiveness of exercise for neck pain. Using specific strengthening exercises as a part of routine practice for chronic neck pain, cervicogenic headache and radiculopathy may be beneficial.
- There is moderate evidence that acupuncture decreases neck pain more than sham treatments.
- There is no conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of traction compared with a range of other treatments in patients with chronic neck pain.
- When pain is severe, analgesics and anti-inflammatory agents are widely used, despite evidence of no clear benefit.
- Low-dose tricyclic antidepressants, like amitriptyline 10-30 mg per night, are also used where the pain is not responsive to standard analgesics.
Indications for surgery include:
- Progressive neurological deficits.
- Documented compression of the cervical nerve root, spinal cord, or both.
- Intractable pain.
However, the outcome of decompressive surgery is often disappointing, especially for myelopathy complicating cervical spondylosis. While progression of the neurological deficit may be slowed by surgery, lost function may not recover or symptoms may progress at a later date. Poor outcome after surgery may reflect irreversible damage to the cervical cord or compromise to the vascular supply to the cord.
A Cochrane review concluded that there is currently insufficient evidence to determine whether the risks of surgery are outweighed by benefits, such as more rapid relief of pain, and low-grade evidence that surgical patients do no better than those receiving conservative management in the longer term.
Epidural injection in the cervical region is effective for treatment of chronic intractable pain of cervical origin but is more invasive than in the lumbar region.
Cervical spondylosis progresses slowly. It is a chronic joint disability, especially when it is associated with neuronal compression. However, most with acute neck pain do well.
A Dutch study found that a year after primary care consultation for this problem:
- Approximately three quarters are 'much improved'.
- However, just under half still had some ongoing symptoms.
- Over half who had been off work when first seen had gone back to work within a week.
- GP advice to 'wait and see' was associated with a higher rate of recovery than referral to either physiotherapy or a specialist.
The best predictors of an unfavourable outcome one year after presentation with neck pain are severity of the initial pain and concomitant back pain. About 10% of affected people go on to develop chronic neck pain, although this figure is much higher in some studies.
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Further reading & references
- Vos C, Verhagen A, Passchier J, et al; Management of acute neck pain in general practice: a prospective study. Br J Gen Pract. 2007 Jan 57(534):23-8.
- Okada E, Matsumoto M, Ichihara D, et al; Aging of the cervical spine in healthy volunteers: a 10-year longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 Apr 1 34(7):706-12.
- Neck pain - cervical radiculopathy; NICE CKS, April 2015 (UK access only)
- Binder AI; Cervical spondylosis and neck pain. BMJ. 2007 Mar 10 334(7592):527-31.
- Neck pain - non-specific; NICE CKS, April 2015 (UK access only)
- Kuijper B, Tans JT, Beelen A, et al; Cervical collar or physiotherapy versus wait and see policy for recent onset cervical radiculopathy: randomised trial. BMJ. 2009 Oct 7 339:b3883. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b3883.
- Gross A, Langevin P, Burnie SJ, et al; Manipulation and mobilisation for neck pain contrasted against an inactive control or another active treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Sep 23 (9):CD004249. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004249.pub4.
- Gouveia LO, Castanho P, Ferreira JJ; Safety of chiropractic interventions: a systematic review. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 May 15 34(11):E405-13. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181a16d63.
- Gross A, Kay TM, Paquin JP, et al; Exercises for mechanical neck disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Jan 28 1:CD004250. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004250.pub5.
- Trinh K, Graham N, Irnich D, et al; Acupuncture for neck disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 May 4 (5):CD004870. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004870.pub4.
- Graham N, Gross A, Goldsmith CH, et al; Mechanical traction for neck pain with or without radiculopathy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16 (3):CD006408.
- Peloso P, Gross A, Haines T, et al; Medicinal and injection therapies for mechanical neck disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18 (3):CD000319.
- Nikolaidis I, Fouyas IP, Sandercock PA, et al; Surgery for cervical radiculopathy or myelopathy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Jan 20 (1):CD001466.
- Benyamin RM, Singh V, Parr AT, et al; Systematic review of the effectiveness of cervical epidurals in the management of chronic neck pain. Pain Physician. 2009 Jan-Feb 12(1):137-57.
- Vos CJ, Verhagen AP, Passchier J, et al; Clinical course and prognostic factors in acute neck pain: an inception cohort study in general practice. Pain Med. 2008 Jul-Aug 9(5):572-80. Epub 2008 Jun 28.
- Hoving JL, de Vet HC, Twisk JW, et al; Prognostic factors for neck pain in general practice. Pain. 2004 Aug 110(3):639-45.
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