Although medical terms that might confuse many people, cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy have a common link with one another. Understanding one (cervical spondylosis) is needed to understand how the other (radiculopathy) works within contexts involving the former. That’s mainly because cervical spondylosis often plays a role in causing radiculopathy in people. In this article, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy.
Understanding cervical spondylosis
Spondylosis is a generalized term referring to the gradual degradation of the spine as a person gets older. It typically starts affecting people sometime after age 30. Cervical spondylosis refers to a specific type of gradual degradation within the spine, namely the degradation of the vertebrae and small tissues of the spine’s cervical portion, otherwise known as the neck.
As people get older, they start losing both elasticity and moisture within the soft tissues of their back, including their ligaments, tendons and the gel-filled cartilage discs that act as cushions in between vertebrae. When the discs start drying out, they start becoming fragile, and cracks and fissures start forming within the drying cartilage. Once these discs start becoming damaged enough, conditions like disc herniation and degenerative disc disease may start developing.
Spondylosis, in general, also causes the cartilage around the spinal joints to eventually wear away. That cartilage plays a role in preventing the bones of each joint from rubbing against each other. When that protective layer wears away, the bones start sustaining damage from grinding against each other. If it persists, the bones might start developing bone spurs (osteophytes) or abnormal bone protrusions.
Understanding cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy
How does cervical spondylosis relate to radiculopathy? First, let’s look at what radiculopathy is. Radiculopathy is a medical term describing pain and other symptoms associated with a compressed nerve root. Sciatica is a common form of radiculopathy that affects the legs and lower back. That condition is caused by the compression of the nerve roots linked to the sciatic nerve within the lumbar spine, otherwise known as the lower back.
When the cervical spine starts degenerating, it may cause nerve root compression, too. Fluid from prolapsed discs or even spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the spine) may cause some form of radiculopathy. Bone spurs also cause compressed nerves, since they put pressure on nerves where the bones start to protrude and subsequently pinch nerves.
People who have developed radiculopathy from cervical spondylosis experience pain and stiffness within their necks, in addition to numbness and/or tingling within their shoulders and arms. Some also experience pain within their arms, chests and shoulders. The relationship of cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy has everything to do with compressed nerves. That’s why when cervical spondylosis is mentioned in some context, radiculopathy usually is a common symptom stemming from the aforementioned condition.
The symptoms of cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy
As we described in the previous section, both cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy have symptoms that best characterize each condition. In most cases, people with cervical spondylosis exhibit symptoms relating to radiculopathy.
Symptoms from cervical spondylosis typically start with sharp pain traveling down the arm, usually in the area of where the originating nerve resides. Some people feel a distinct ‘pins and needles’ sensation or, in uncommon cases, complete numbness. Some people feel weak when they perform certain activities, which is a direct result of the nerve issues caused by cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy
The symptoms may even worsen over time, especially due to certain movements. Movements like extending or straining the neck or even turning the head can worsen the condition.
Of course, the aforementioned symptoms aren’t the only symptoms associated with cervical spondylosis and, to a lesser extent, radiculopathy. Here’s an overview of cervical spondylosis symptoms:
– Pain in the neck that spreads to the shoulders or base of the skull.
– Pain in the neck that eventually spreads down to the arm, hand and/or fingers.
– Pain that tends to flare up on occasion, particularly when using a body part affected by the pain.
– Neck stiffness, sometimes after sleeping.
– Headaches that start from the back of the head (from above the neck) and travel over to the top of the forehead.
– A ‘pins and needles’ sensation in part of the arm or hand, typically originating from radiculopathy.
– Rarely, clumsiness in the hand, problems with walking and/or problems with bladder function.
Some people have their symptoms go away after a few days or a few weeks, though most people take much longer to relieve themselves of their symptoms originating from the condition. Though, it’s not uncommon for either condition to come back after a while. When that happens, people typically need a full medical examination and persistent treatment to subside the symptoms of the condition.
People with cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy are advised to talk to their doctor about their experience with one or both conditions. In most cases, doctors use symptoms from cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy to understand how to diagnose either condition and find solutions for treating them.
Treatment options for cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy
Speaking of treatment, people with cervical spondylosis or radiculopathy have the option of treatment to relieve mild or severe symptoms. Let’s take a look at the forms of treatment available.
Treatment for both cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy typically starts with non-surgical options. This is usually the best course of treatment for people with milder symptoms from either condition.
Soft collars help the muscles of the neck relax and limit the neck’s natural motions, while also decreasing the likelihood of the nerve roots pinching with each movement. They’re typically worn for a short amount of time to prevent the neck muscles form losing strength. Physical therapy also works, as it helps with stretching and strengthening the neck muscles.
Medications are a common form of non-surgical treatment. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and aspirin are incredibly common for reducing pain from nerve swelling.
Narcotics help treat severe pain, though are prescribed for a limited time due to their addictive nature. Spinal injections of steroids, typically near the pinched nerve, provide near immediate relief for people with nerve pain and swelling.
In rare cases, surgical treatment may be needed to completely relieve symptoms from cervical spondylosis and radiculopathy. This usually involves removing certain parts of the damaged spinal cord or nerve roots (such as herniated discs or bone spurs) to make more room for them.