You may be unaware of what the term “joint dysfunction” of the neck and spine means, but there’s still a good chance you’ve experienced this highly prevalent problem, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
“With dozens of joint levels between the top of the neck and the bottom of the spine, each of these joints works with the others to allow you to move your head, neck and trunk in a fluid and coordinated way,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “Joint dysfunction literally means ‘bad motion,’ so if you’re experiencing joint dysfunction in the neck and/or spine, you likely know something’s wrong.”
Essentially, joint dysfunction can affect people in two different ways: either the joints don’t move enough, called hypomobility; or they move too much, called hypermobility. When motion is altered at any one of the joints in the neck and spine, other joints along the track “compensate” to restore the spine’s proper motion, Dr. Chang says.
“It works like a reverse domino effect,” he says. “Lack of motion at one joint level often results in too much motion at another joint level, while too much motion at one joint level typically leads to too little motion at another joint level. The sum total is several areas of joint dysfunction in the neck and/or spine that can seem to happen at once.”
Causes and symptoms
Why does joint dysfunction in the spine and neck occur? On a basic level, Dr. Chang says, this happens because of degenerative changes in the joints. “Cartilage inside each joint breaks down and becomes inflamed, whether because of aging or injury,” he explains.
Even when an injury is the cause – such as a car accident or sports injury – it can still take time for joint dysfunction in the neck and spine to show up. That’s because the injury itself can set off a slow chain reaction of sorts that leads to cartilage breakdown in the joints over months or years. This “wear and tear” phenomenon is better known as arthritis.
When joint dysfunction in the spine or neck occurs, you may know something isn’t right but be puzzled as to what’s happening. According to Dr. Chang, symptoms that can tip you off include:
- Muscle spasms
- Dull ache in the low back
- Difficulty or pain when bending or twisting the spine and/or neck
- Worsened pain when standing or staying still for long periods
- Pain that radiates down the arms or legs, whether chronically or once in a while
“All of these symptoms, while difficult to bear, are the types of symptoms that can also arise from a variety of back and neck problems, not just joint dysfunction,” Dr. Chang points out. “That’s why it’s imperative that you seek an accurate diagnosis – it’s the path toward treating the condition most appropriately.”
Evaluating your back and neck problem starts with a doctor’s visit, where you should receive a thorough exam and discuss your medical history. Your doctor will also ask about any history of injuries, where your pain is located, and any problems you’re experiencing moving, standing or sleeping, Dr. Chang says.
“You may also be asked to stand or move in various positions and point to where your discomfort arises,” he adds. “Your doctor might move your joints or feel for tender areas over the spine and neck.” Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT or MRI scans may also be ordered to help pinpoint your diagnosis.
The best treatment for joint dysfunction of the spine and/or neck depends on several factors, including which joint(s) are affected, your pain level and other symptoms, Dr. Chang says. Options include:
- Pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription
- Physical therapy
- Joint injections with corticosteroids, which calm inflammation
- Nerve blocks to eliminate pain
- Nerve ablations, which use focused heat to stop offending nerve endings from producing pain signals
“Joint dysfunction of the spine and neck can’t necessarily be ‘cured’ or reversed, but there are many ways to ease your discomfort and resume your favorite activities,” Dr. Chang says. “Healthy eating, weight control and regular exercise – all of which are in your hands – can also contribute to the best possible outcome.”