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Physical Therapy for Neck Arthritis: How PT Can Help

Cervical spondylosis can be a real pain in the neck — literally. 

Have you been experiencing neck pain, headaches, and muscle spasms in your neck and back? Maybe you’ve been looking for information on how to get relief from the discomfort that comes with neck arthritis. 

You’re not alone.

Neck arthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis among adults and many of them are looking for relief, just like you. 

Here, we’ll review the causes and symptoms of neck arthritis and share the most common treatment options and exercises to help you find relief. 

Table of Contents

What Is Neck Arthritis?

More than 85% of people over the age of 60 experience neck arthritis — also referred to as cervical spondylosis

Cervical spondylosis affects the spinal disks in your neck. Over time, the cartilage in your neck joints begins to break down, often causing no symptoms.

Just as with other forms of arthritis throughout the body, neck arthritis is the age-related wear and tear (degeneration) of bones, joints, and discs in your neck. 

What Causes Neck Arthritis?

The human head weighs roughly as much as a ten-pound bowling ball, so it’s no surprise that the stress of supporting our heads can cause wear and tear on the discs and joints in our necks. 

This occurs in almost everyone, even if a person has no symptoms at all. In fact, nearly half of all middle-aged and older people have worn discs and joints that do not cause any painful symptoms. 

How does this happen?

  • Dehydrated discs — Most people’s spinal disks begin drying out and shrinking by the age of 40. As they become smaller, there are more bone-to-bone contacts between the vertebrae. This, along with the thickening of bones and ligaments, is one of the most common causes of neck arthritis related to age.
  • Herniated discs — Cracks begin to appear on the exterior of spinal discs, allowing the soft disc interior to slip through. This can happen due to an occupation or hobby, or from genetics.
  • Bone spurs — As the discs break down, the body can produce extra bone in an effort to strengthen the spine. Known as bone spurs, these can pinch the spinal cord and nerve roots.
  • Stiff ligaments — The neck becomes less flexible as spinal ligaments stiffen, often due to age. However, stiff ligaments can also be caused by genetics.

Neck Arthritis Symptoms

For many, neck arthritis can be a literal pain in the neck — others may not experience any symptoms at all. 

Some of the most common neck arthritis symptoms include: 

  • Neck stiffness
  • Pain in the shoulder or arms
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches that start in your neck
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability 
  • Fatigue
  • Myelopathy
  • Numbness in your arm or hand
  • Unable to turn the head or bend the neck
  • Radiculopathy
  • Grinding noise or sensation when turning the neck 

When cervical spondylosis results in myelopathy, other symptoms can occur, like: 

  • Lack of coordination
  • Difficulty walking
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control 
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms, hands, legs, or feet

Dealing with symptoms of neck arthritis can be frustrating and, in severe cases, debilitating. Thankfully, there are several treatment options available to help manage neck arthritis symptoms. 

Neck Arthritis Treatment

Most cases of neck arthritis can be helped by conventional and non-surgical treatments, but in severe cases, medical intervention may be necessary. 

Neck Arthritis Treatment: Conservative

Conservative and natural care helps many neck arthritis sufferers control their pain and slow the progression of the disease. Examples of natural treatments are: 

  • Activity modification — Stretching before certain exercises and activities, and participating for shorter lengths of time
  • Yoga — Relieves neck tension and stress by reducing tension
  • Herbal remedies — Turmeric, for example, is considered an anti-inflammatory and may help reduce neck pain related to arthritis
  • Physical therapy — Therapists help patients learn exercises that improve posture and strengthen the neck
  • Pain relievers — Naproxen and ibuprofen help relieve inflammation and alleviate pain
  • Warm baths — These can soothe achy joints and relax tense muscles
  • Ice therapy — Ice is known to reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain
  • Massage — This may provide temporary relief

Neck Arthritis Treatment: Medical Intervention

In cases of neck arthritis where symptoms do not improve with natural treatments, medical intervention may be necessary. 

Steroid-Based Injections

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe a steroid-based injection, which is a mix of corticosteroids and a local anesthetic. 

These injections are used to reduce inflammation in the spinal canal and reduce symptoms of neck arthritis. 


Your doctor may determine that you need surgery for your neck arthritis if:

  1. You’ve been diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy — a spinal nerve is being pinched by a herniated disk
  2. You’ve been diagnosed with cervical spondylotic myelopathy — your spinal cord is being compressed

Patients who have neurologic symptoms, like arm weakness, numbness, or falling, are more likely to see symptoms improve after having surgery. 

Physical Therapy for Arthritis in the Neck — Will PT Help?

You’ve come here looking for help with your pain, and by now you probably want to know, “Can physical therapy help arthritis in the neck?”

The answer is yes, there are physical therapy exercises for neck arthritis that can help manage your pain.

Here’s how it works. 

When you first visit a physical therapist, you’ll complete an evaluation or consultation. Your therapist will see how well you can move your neck, ask what symptoms you have, and assess joint function in your neck and back. 

After the initial assessment, your physical therapist will work with you to create a specialized plan to alleviate your neck arthritis symptoms. 

Best Physical Therapy Exercises for Neck Arthritis

If you are suffering from symptoms of neck arthritis, your physical therapist may recommend some common exercises to help you find relief. 

The exercises will likely focus on your back, shoulder, and neck to help strengthen the muscles working around the bones, discs, and ligaments that might be causing your pain.

Chin Tucks

Chin tucks are one of the most effective exercises for combating neck pain. They help strengthen the muscles that pull your head back into alignment over your shoulders. 

To perform a chin tuck:

  1. Sit or stand with your feet flat on the floor, shoulders relaxed.
  2. While looking straight ahead, gently glide your chin straight back without tilting your head or bending your neck.
  3. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
  4. Relax, return to start, and repeat.

Shoulder Rolls

Shoulder rolls are commonly recommended to help strengthen the muscles that support your neck. They are also great exercises to help keep your shoulders and neck joints fluid. 

To perform shoulder rolls:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms to your side.
  2. Rotate your shoulders forward, creating big circles.
  3. Rotate your shoulders backward, doing the same.
  4. Repeat.

Wall Push-Ups

Normal push-ups can put a lot of strain on your neck muscles — which isn’t ideal when trying to treat neck arthritis. Instead, many therapists recommend doing wall push-ups, which still strengthen the muscles of the shoulders and support your neck muscles. 

To perform wall push-ups:

  1. Stand straight and place your hands on the wall shoulder-width apart at eye level.
  2. Step back until your arms are fully extended, keeping your hands against the wall.
  3. Bend your elbows outwards and lower your body towards the wall, keeping your feet in place.
  4. Push off of the wall to the starting position.
  5. Repeat.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Neck Arthritis

In Motion O.C. understands just how frustrating it can be to live with symptoms of neck arthritis — and we don’t want you to have to deal with the symptoms any longer. 

We’ve helped dozens of people overcome their symptoms of neck arthritis and other neck-related injuries, and we’d love to help you, too. 

As the #1 physical therapist in the country on Yelp! and Google, we are committed to providing the best possible care to our clients. It’s our mission that our simple process provides hope, healing, and confidence to everyone we treat. 

Request a free screening to get started with In Motion O.C. today.

The content in this blog should not be used in place of direct medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes.

In Motion O.C.