Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) typically start in the small joints of the fingers and toes and then move on to the knees and other larger joints. Studies show that as many as 86% of people diagnosed with this progressive inflammatory disease also have RA in the cervical spine (neck).
Neurosurgeon and spine specialist Dr. Patrick Doherty and our team at Yale Neurosurgery New London offer our Connecticut communities top-level care for conditions affecting the back and neck, including spinal changes associated with RA.
Check these facts from our team regarding rheumatoid arthritis and its effects on the neck.
Rheumatoid arthritis vs osteoarthritis
RA is a progressive autoimmune disease caused by a faulty immune response to the synovial tissue lining many of the body’s joints. As a result, your immune system mistakenly identifies the joint tissue as a toxic invader dangerous to your health.
This triggers an inflammatory response designed to protect your body by expelling the foreign substance. Instead, the chronic inflammation related to RA destroys healthy tissue, eventually leading to significant joint pain, stiffness, and deterioration. RA also affects areas beyond the joints, including the skin, hair, cardiovascular system, nerves, and muscles.
Symptoms of RA can include:
- Joint swelling, redness, and warmth
- General malaise (flu-like symptoms)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty concentrating
Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, is commonly caused by age or overuse injuries that damage or wear away joint cartilage over time. Joints most often affected by osteoarthritis are the knees, hips, and other weight-bearing joints. Both RA and osteoarthritis can affect bones and joints within the spine.
How rheumatoid arthritis affects the neck
A small synovial joint lies between the first and second vertebrae of the cervical spine (C1 and C2) just under the base of the skull. This pivot joint allows you to turn your head from side to side and is, unfortunately, vulnerable to RA.
Chronic synovial inflammation (synovitis) related to RA leads to bone and ligament destruction, which may eventually cause the affected vertebrae to shift out of place. This instability may result in compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots.
Symptoms of cervical spine RA may include:
- Moderate to severe neck pain at the base of the skull
- Difficulty moving your head from side to side
- Mild to severe headaches, often one-sided, that worsen with head or neck movements
- Numbness or tingling in the neck that radiates to the back of the head
- Neck warmth, redness, and tenderness to touch
Compression of the spinal cord caused by vertebral instability can also cause difficulty with balance and loss of bowel or bladder control.
Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in the neck
Treatment for cervical spine RA generally focuses on reducing inflammation, preserving joint health, and slowing disease progression.
Whenever possible, based on your evaluation results, Dr. Doherty starts with conservative treatments such as anti-inflammatory medications, injection-based therapies, or physical therapy to reduce swelling, pain, and inflammation.
For severe joint damage or nerve compression, he may recommend minimally invasive neck surgery to restabilize the spine and relieve your symptoms. Dr. Doherty is also a robotic surgery specialist, which adds an extra dimension of precision to delicate spine surgery. You may also benefit from an evaluation by a rheumatologist to prevent further disease spread or systemic damage related to RA.
Schedule an evaluation with Dr. Doherty at Yale Neurosurgery New London by calling the office today.