Do I Have the Symptoms of Cervical Bone Spurs?
Neck pain limits the way in which you live your life. After all, when a simple act such as turning your head causes you to experience pain, it can affect your career, ability to enjoy family life, and personal well-being.
People experience neck pain for a variety of reasons. In an age when long hours are spent working at a computer or enjoying time hunched over mobile devices, it’s no wonder that neck pain reigns supreme. In many cases, neck pain results from muscular problems egged on by poor posture or personal habits. However, other times, neck discomfort can result from underlying diseases such as osteoarthritis or from traumatic injuries such as whiplash.
Some patients will come to discover that the cause of their long-suffering neck pain is bony overgrowths of the spine known as osteophytes. Commonly known as bone spurs, these growths can restrict movement of the joints and cause nerve compression.
So what underlying force causes these bone spurs to develop? How do you know if you might have them? And, most importantly, what can be done to ease your discomfort? This guide will help you better understand the warning signs of cervical bone spurs as well as the various treatment options that doctors use to address them.
Understanding the Cervical Spine
The cervical spine refers to the seven vertebrae that connect the base of your skull to your upper back. The cavities inside the vertebrae, known as the spinal canal, house and protect the spinal cord. As one of the main components of the central nervous system, the giant bundle of nerves known as the spinal cord serves to give and receive messages between your brain and the rest of your body.
In addition, your neck serves to support your head and all of its movements. This is no easy feat considering that the average noggin weighs about the same as a bowling ball.
Furthermore, a network of muscles, tendons, and ligaments functions to reinforce your cervical vertebrae. These soft tissues provide structure, support, and flexibility to the neck. As such, the back of each vertebra contains a facet joint that permits your spine to bend. These joints are surrounded by cartilage and produce a fluid that aids with the flexibility and movement of the joint. In addition, nerves from the spinal cord radiate out to the rest of your body through openings between these joints.
What are Bone Spurs?
Bone spurs are outgrowths of bone that develop along the edges of vertebrae. However, bone spurs can also occur on just about any bone of your body. In fact, they often form at joints, where two or more bones come together to create movement.
Bone spurs can develop for a variety of reasons. For better or worse, they are a normal part of the natural aging process. As we age, normal wear and tear on the spine can cause our protective cartilage to break down. This lack of cartilage exposes our bones to the grinding forces of other bones, generating inflammation and causing structural changes to our joints.
Cervical bone spurs usually result from degenerative spine conditions such as osteoarthritis. These conditions change the structure of our discs, joints, and ligaments.
Furthermore, our bones are living tissues capable of repairing themselves. When there are structural issues with the bones and soft tissues, deposits of calcium slowly form to reinforce the damaged area. These deposits create abnormalities known as bone spurs. In some cases, we don’t even know that we have bone spurs. Other times, the spurs compress nearby nerves creating painful, and often debilitating, conditions.
Common Symptoms of Cervical Bone Spurs
A troublesome bone spur can cause a variety of symptoms. While some are minor nuisances, others could seriously disrupt your ability to function. Symptoms of cervical bone spurs include:
- Aching or dull pain in the neck that may get worse when you are active
- Muscle spasms or cramping
- Reduced mobility and stiffness
- Headaches, especially intense on the sides or back of the head. Sometimes this pain is felt behind the eye or even toward the top of the head, depending upon the nerve root that has been affected.
- Shock-like pain that radiates from the neck to the shoulder and arm. In many cases, the pain is classified as unilateral (or occurring on just one side of the body). This type of pain is known as cervical radiculopathy.
- If your bone spur compromises the spinal cord, a condition known as cervical myelopathy can occur. This involves loss of balance and coordination as well as weakness or numbing of the arms and hands.
- Although unusual, one could experience difficulty breathing or swallowing. In addition, loss of bowel or bladder control is another rare, but incredibly serious symptom. These symptoms often require immediate medical attention.
Cervical bone spurs share some of the same characteristics as other spine conditions, often mimicking spinal stenosis symptoms. If the above symptoms persist or continue to worsen, consult with a doctor or orthopedic specialist about your pain.
Diagnosing Cervical Bone Spurs
Since bone spurs are an outgrowth of your normal bones, current medical technology makes them fairly easy to detect. First, your doctor will conduct a thorough medical exam. This includes gathering information about your symptoms, medical history, and personal habits. Your doctor will also perform a physical examination to detect muscle weakness and other conditions associated with bone spurs (like cervical myelopathy).
To confirm the presence of bone spurs, your doctor may order more diagnostic testing. This process typically starts with an x-ray to obtain a clear image of your cervical spine. If those results are inconclusive, then advanced imaging may be necessary. This includes CT scans or MRIs. These methods will give your doctor a more complete picture of the issues that are causing your neck pain. Finally, your doctor may order a nerve conduction study and/or electromyogram to determine the specific location of any affected nerves.
Treatment Options for Cervical Bone Spurs
Unless your symptoms are severe, your doctor will generally start with conservative treatments. In most cases, this will help with your neck pain and increase mobility and functioning. These nonsurgical treatments may include:
- Resting the Area: A couple days of avoiding any strenuous activity involving the neck may lessen some of the acute pain and inflammation. During this rest period, your doctor may recommend using an ice or heat pack.
- Pain Medications: Typically, as an initial course of treatment, your doctor will suggest over-the-counter or anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers. If these don’t work, he or she may order you prescription drugs instead. If these drugs still fail to provide you with adequate relief after a few weeks, your doctor may order epidural steroid injections. During this treatment, your doctor will inject a corticosteroid medicine directly into the affected area to block pain signals.
- Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can perform and prescribe exercises, like neck stretches to strengthen the muscles supporting the neck. In addition, he or she may suggest certain activity modifications, such as basic techniques for improving posture. Even simple postural tweaks can prevent your symptoms from worsening.
- Holistic Therapies: Certain holistic treatments like acupuncture or chiropractic adjustment can assist in reducing your pain and improving your neck mobility.
Surgical Treatments for Osteophytes
If, after weeks of conservative treatments, you aren’t achieving the necessary relief, surgical treatments may be available. Although rarely needed, these treatments can be incredibly beneficial in finally addressing the neck pain associated with bone spurs. Some of these minimally invasive treatments include:
- Laminectomy: A procedure to remove bone spurs and other tissues that cause nerve compression. This creates more space for the spinal nerves to function adequately.
- ACDF: In which your surgeon accesses the spine through a small incision in the front of the neck to remove a damaged disc caused by a protruding bone spur. Subsequently, the bones around the removed disc are fused together using a bone graft to stabilize the area.
- Posterior Cervical Laminoplasty: If a bone spur is compressing your spinal cord, then your surgeon may enter in through the back of your neck to relieve the pressure. This often involves cutting a bone near the spine, known as the lamina so that it hinges open and gives the spinal cord more room to heal.
By using the latest technology, these surgical procedures can be “minimally invasive” (or resulting in minimal trauma to the spine). This allows for less scarring and pain. In addition, since these types of procedures cause less damage to soft tissues than open surgeries, recovery times are usually significantly shorter.
Seeking Treatment for Your Neck Pain
If you are experiencing significant neck pain because of bone spurs, our surgical team at the Advanced Spine Center is ready to help. We specialize in both nonsurgical and surgical treatments to help you find the most appropriate care for your neck and spine issues.
By scheduling an appointment at the Advanced Spine Center today, you are assured that our multidisciplinary, fellowship-trained team of spine experts will be handling your case. From there, you can expect a customized treatment plan based on your condition, preferences, and goals for recovery. We empower you with knowledge about the latest conservative treatments as well as the most effective surgical approaches to help you return to your life–free of pain.