Degenerative (arthritic) changes of the cervical spine may cause localised neck pain, nerve pain in the arm, or spinal cord compression. Symptoms localised to the neck include stiffness, grinding or pain (sharp or aching) that is felt in the back of the neck and across the shoulders. Sometimes pure muscle fatigue or strain can give rise to a similar pain in the neck.
The issue with arthritis of the cervical spine is thickening of ligaments and bone spurs around the joints and discs of the spine. The discs dry out, lose height and in some cases become unstable. These changes can result in nerve pinching or spinal cord compression. If a nerve is affected, then there will be shooting pain in the arm associated with weakness, numbness or tingling. Spinal cord compression itself does not cause pain, but leads to numbness in the hands, clumsy fingers and unsteadiness of the legs.
Symptoms of degeneration of the spine usually develop over time. Early treatment of neck pain is based on changing activity to avoid triggers for pain, anti-inflammatory medication (such as Nurofen, Indocid, Mobic or Celebrex), applying heat packs and physiotherapy. Often pain will settle in a few weeks but may recur and be episodic, in which case it is important to try and remain active anyway.
Surgery is used to treat unrelenting nerve pain in the arm or for loss of control in the hands or legs due to damage to the spinal cord. Procedures used to alleviate nerve pinching or spinal cord compression vary from simple to complex and the choice is based on X-rays, CT and MRI scans. Stay in hospital varies from one to several nights.