Degeneration of the neck joints start because of normal forces acting on the joint complex. The joint complex refers to the entire team who has to carry the load and allow pain free movement. This team includes two cervical vertebrae, the disc in between, the ligaments that aid in stability and the muscles that attach or pass over the joint to generate movement. All these components directly affect the neck joint’s movement, lets look at each individual component.
With age, discs lose their hydration the same way skin loses it’s elasticity. This will lessen the disc’s ability to absorb forces placed on the neck. The disc narrows from top to bottom because of the increase in forces. Loss of disc height is the reason elderly people seem to get shorter as they age. The increase in load may lead to disc bulge/prolapse which results in the surrounding structures being pinched & compressed.
The ligaments lose their elasticity which causes traction spurs to develop on the bone. Osteophytes are bone spurs that form as the body’s attempt to help stabilize the joints. Osteophytes can form in the way of a nerve root or may even become dislodged. The facet joints – where the top vertebra fits onto the bottom one – undergo changes where they become bigger in an attempt to stabilize the motion segment of the neck joint. This contributes to limited movements and the feeling of a “stiff neck“.
All of these changes occupy space in an already tight fit area, even under normal circumstances. This can lead to stenosis, a narrowing of the canal through which the spinal cord passes. This narrowing between the bones will lead to compression of the nerves running to the shoulders and upper arm. This causes symptoms similar to that of a disc bulge/prolapse, but can be traced back to its origin from the neck joints.
The surrounding muscles need to work overtime to move against the in-congruent joint surfaces. Stability muscles get weaker, leaving you with the headache of a constantly stiff and sore neck.