Bone spurs in the neck: symptoms, causes, and treatment

Bone spurs are areas of smooth, excess bone that can develop as you age. Cedars-Sinai says they are most common and noticeable in adults over the age of 60. Bone spurs can develop anywhere in your body from:

  • natural wear and tear on your bones and joints
  • underlying medical conditions
  • Injuries

While bone spurs alone aren’t usually painful, these growths in your neck can become symptomatic as they press on nerve endings in your spine and cause pain or discomfort when you move your neck.

According to Cedars-Sinai, it is estimated that around 40 percent of people with bone spurs need treatment for their symptoms. Learn about the symptoms and causes of bone spurs in the neck and what to do about them if your symptoms are extremely painful and interfere with your daily activities.

Bone spurs in the neck cannot cause symptoms at first. But if the bone spurs get bigger, you may notice:

  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • a visible lump that you can feel to the touch

As bone spurs progress, they can cause more serious symptoms that can affect your quality of life.

You should see a doctor if you have the following symptoms:

  • chronic dull pain
  • Pain radiating from the neck to the head
  • headache
  • Numbness or tingling sensation that can spread to your arms and hands
  • Muscle spasms that may radiate into the shoulders
  • Stiffness and restricted range of motion (e.g., turning the neck from side to side)

If a bone spur is suspected in the neck, a doctor will likely recommend imaging tests such as x-rays. This can help confirm any areas of excessive bone growth along your cervical spine.

Here are some examples of what x-rays of bone spurs in your neck can look like.

Bone spurs have many causes. A 2017 research report showed that they are more common the older you get.

Depending on where they are in your body, lifestyle can be a factor. Bone spurs on the feet can be caused, for example, by impact-intensive exercises or being overweight.

Specific risk factors for bone spurs in the neck can include:

  • History of Sports Injuries
  • Car accidents or other incidents that cause whiplash
  • Overuse injuries, especially from desk jobs
  • Inheritance
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) spine

It is important to note that stress from persistent racism, discrimination, and other racist systems can play a role in the development of the disease beyond genetic factors.

A 2020 animal study showed that bone spurs are also common in osteoarthritis (OA). This type of arthritis is common as we age and can cause the joints to collapse over time.

OA can affect your neck directly, but it is also possible that your vertebrae are affected in other parts of your spine. When pressure is placed on your spine, bone spurs can grow between the vertebrae, causing neck pain.

Arthritis of the neck is also known as cervical spondylitis. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says about 85 percent of adults ages 60 and over develop this condition. When the joints wear out, bone spurs can develop.

The American College of Rheumatology says other common causes of neck pain in general are conditions that affect your spine, such as a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. These can lead to bone spurs, but this type of complication isn’t as common in the neck. Neck bone spurs can also occur with cervical stenosis (neck).

To diagnose a bone spur in the neck, a doctor will first perform a physical exam. They can ask you questions about your symptoms and test the mobility of your neck. A bone spur on the neck can be confirmed by imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

The tests can also help diagnose underlying causes such as OA.

Your doctor may also recommend an electrical conductivity test to check for nerve injuries in your spinal cord. Blood tests may also be ordered to rule out the possibility of other underlying conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment for bone spurs will depend on the severity of your symptoms and your overall condition.

Lighter cases can be handled with one or more of the following options:

  • rest
  • cold compresses for pain relief
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation and subsequent pain
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that are only for temporary use
  • Paracetamol (Tylenol) for mild pain
  • Physiotherapy to increase freedom of movement (planned up to three times a week for 2 months)
  • Massage therapy for pain relief

In more severe cases where symptoms are unresponsive to therapy and medication, a doctor may recommend surgery on the cervical spine (neck).

The type of surgery for cervical bone spurs depends on the underlying cause and location – some examples include:

  • Spinal fusion to weld two or more vertebrae back together
  • anterior cervical discectomy to remove spurs and discs from the front of the neck
  • anterior cervical corpectomy Used to remove and replace vertebrae when bone spurs cannot be removed by discectomy
  • posterior cervical laminectomy to remove the lamina in the neck and get rid of bone spurs that can press on the spinal nerves

A doctor will discuss with you all the benefits and risks of surgery to remove the bone spur. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons says that while surgery is rare, it carries the risk of nerve and spinal cord damage, as well as increased pain.

Rest is important with neck pain. But a doctor can refer you to a physical therapist who can guide you through exercises that will help:

  • Reduce pain
  • Improvement of the freedom of movement in the neck
  • Build strength and improve posture

Below are two neck exercises suggested by the North American Spine Society that you might want to discuss with a doctor or therapist.

Neck retractions

In a sitting or standing position, keep your head in a forward facing position while gently pressing your fingers against your chin. You should feel a stretch in your neck.

Hold this position for up to 2 seconds, up to 10 times in a row. The North American Spine Society says you can repeat these retractions up to four times a day.

Correct posture

Your physical therapist will also help you maintain correct posture to improve your symptoms. Try this all day by following these tips:

  • Orient your ears just above your shoulders.
  • Create space behind your neck without shrugging your shoulders.
  • Roll your shoulders back.
  • Prevent your head and chin from falling forward.

Bone spurs in the neck are not painful in and of themselves. But these bone growths can put pressure on nerves over time, causing pain, swelling, and restricted mobility.

Talk to a doctor if you have chronic neck pain so they can get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Bone spurs and other related conditions like OA can be diagnosed with a physical exam and imaging tests.

They can help treat bone spurs with a combination of prescribed medications, rest, and neck exercises. Keep track of your treatment plan and see a doctor or physical therapist if your pain doesn’t improve.