Your health care provider will likely start with a physical exam that includes:
- Checking the range of motion in your neck
- Testing your reflexes and muscle strength to find out if there's pressure on your spinal nerves or spinal cord
- Watching you walk to see if spinal compression is affecting your gait
Imaging tests can provide detailed information to guide diagnosis and treatment. Examples include:
- Neck X-ray. An X-ray can show changes in the spine, such as bone spurs, that indicate cervical spondylosis. Neck X-ray can also rule out rare and more serious causes for neck pain and stiffness, such as tumors, cancer, infections or fractures.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a strong magnetic field, MRI can produce detailed images that can help pinpoint areas where nerves might be pinched.
- Computed tomography (CT) myelography. In this type of computed tomography (CT) scan, a dye is injected into the spinal canal to provide more-detailed imaging. This test makes it easier to see the details of the spinal cord, spinal canal and nerve roots.
Nerve function tests
You may need tests to determine if nerve signals are traveling properly to your muscles. Nerve function tests include:
- Electromyography. This test measures the electrical activity in your nerves as they transmit messages to your muscles when the muscles are contracting and at rest.
- Nerve conduction study. Electrodes are attached to the skin above the nerve to be studied. A small shock is passed through the nerve to measure the strength and speed of nerve signals.
Treatment for cervical spondylosis depends on its severity. The goal of treatment is to relieve pain, help you maintain your usual activities as much as possible, and prevent permanent injury to the spinal cord and nerves.
If nonprescription pain relievers aren't enough, your health care provider might prescribe:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), are commonly available without a prescription. You may need prescription-strength versions to relieve the pain and inflammation associated with cervical spondylosis.
- Corticosteroids. A short course of oral prednisone might help ease pain. If your pain is severe, steroid injections may be helpful.
- Muscle relaxants. Certain drugs, such as cyclobenzaprine (Amrix, Fexmid), can help relieve muscle spasms in the neck.
- Anti-seizure medications. Some epilepsy medications can dull the pain of damaged nerves.
- Antidepressants. Certain antidepressant medications can help ease neck pain from cervical spondylosis.
A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help stretch and strengthen the muscles in your neck and shoulders. This can be one of the best treatments for the pain and stiffness. Some people with cervical spondylosis benefit from the use of traction, which can help provide more space within the spine if nerve roots are being pinched.
If conservative treatment fails or if neurological symptoms — such as weakness in your arms or legs — worsen, you might need surgery to create more room for your spinal cord and nerve roots.
The surgery might involve removing a herniated disk, bone spurs or part of a vertebra. A segment of your neck may need to be fused with bone grafts and hardware.
Mild cervical spondylosis might respond to:
- Regular exercise. Maintaining activity will help speed recovery, even if you have to temporarily modify some of your exercises because of neck pain. People who walk daily are less likely to experience neck and low back pain.
- Pain relievers you can buy without a prescription. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) is often enough to control the pain associated with cervical spondylosis.
- Heat or ice. Applying heat or ice to your neck can ease sore neck muscles.
- Soft neck brace. The brace allows your neck muscles to rest. However, a neck brace should be worn for only short periods of time because it can eventually weaken neck muscles and cause neck stiffness.
Chiropractic adjustments can help relieve neck pain and stiffness. The chiropractor may manipulate your spine or perform massage to relieve symptoms. The treatment is typically done after X-rays of the cervical spine have been completed.
Both massage therapy and acupuncture are being studied to treat neck pain. Some early results suggest that both may be helpful.
Preparing for your appointment
You might be referred to a physical therapist or a doctor specializing in spine disorders (orthopedist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and to know what to expect.
What you can do
- Write down your symptoms and when they began.
- Write down your key medical information, including other conditions.
- Write down key personal information, including any major changes or stressors in your life.
- Make a list of all your medications, vitamins or supplements.
- Find out if anyone in your family has had similar problems.
- Ask a family member or friend to accompany you, to help you remember what you learn during the appointment.
- Write down questions to ask during the appointment.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatments are available?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
In addition to asking questions you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask other questions that come up during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your health care provider is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may make time to go over points you want to discuss in-depth. You might be asked:
- Where exactly does your neck hurt?
- Have you had previous episodes of similar pain that eventually went away?
- Have you experienced any changes in your bladder or bowel control?
- Have you experienced tingling or weakness in your arms, hands, legs or feet?
- Do you have difficulty walking?
- What self-care measures have you tried, and have any of them helped?
- What are your occupation, hobbies and recreational activities?
- Have you ever had whiplash or another neck injury?
Nov 18, 2023
- Miller M, et al. Cervical spondylotic myelopathy. In: DeLee, Drez, and Miller's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine: Principles and Practice. 5th ed. Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Levin K. Cervical spondylotic myelopathy. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. April 9, 2022.
- Isaac Z, et al. Evaluation of the patient with neck pain. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. April 8, 2022.
- Kothari M. Clinical features and diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed May 7, 2022.
- Cervical spondylosis (arthritis of the neck). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-spondylosis-arthritis-of-the-neck. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Ferri FF. Cervical disc syndromes. In: Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2022. Elsevier; 2022. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Kothari M. Treatment and prognosis of cervical radiculopathy. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Rubin M. Cervical spondylosis and spondylotic cervical myelopathy. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/spinal-cord-disorders/cervical-spondylosis-and-spondylotic-cervical-myelopathy. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Theodore N. Degenerative cervical spondylosis. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2020. doi:10.1056/NEJMra2003558.
- Isaac Z. Management of non-radicular neck pain in adults. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed April 9, 2022.
- Gross A, et al. Manipulation and mobilisation for neck pain contrasted against an inactive control or another active treatment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004249.pub4.
- Shelerud RA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. April 23, 2022.
- Nahin RL, et al. Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2016. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.06.007.