Last week, my mother was chewing a vitamin gummy, and her canine tooth fell out of her mouth and rolled across the table. (Gummy indeed.) I might have that joy to look forward to as the years advance.
But in the meantime, I’ve been dealing with age-related crumbling bone issues of my own, just not in my mouth.
After a year of fairly intense chronic pain and dozens of out-of-pocket visits to a chiropractor that provided only temporary relief, I got some X-rays of my neck and received an official diagnosis: cervical osteoarthritis, aka cervical spondylosis. If you are over 50, you, too, are probably suffering from the same thing, even if you don’t feel it (yet). I am sorry to report that, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, by age 60, 85 percent of people will have degeneration of the cervical spine.
What the Heck Happened to My Neck?
I did some research to understand why the pain in my neck was so, well, painful. And why it strikes at this age. It’s a mechanical problem. The fluid-filled discs (picture spongy pillows) between the vertebrae that cushion nerves and bones dry out and compress over time. Without those puffy buffers, nerves become inflamed, and the cartilage coating on vertebrae wears away, resulting in spiky bone spurs that grate against those already raw nerves. For some, the symptoms are stiffness, inflexibility, burning, or tingling. My experience has been a constant ache on the right side of my neck and a related trapezius muscle strain that feels like a dagger has been lodged under my shoulder blade.
Like osteoporosis, cervical spondylosis is more common—or just more painful—for women. Researchers at the Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago recently presented a study of over 3,000 subjects who came to their pain management center that found women were 1.38 times more likely to report pain due to cervical degenerative disc disease than men. Either woman complain more or suffer more. (I think we all know which one is true.)
Either woman complain more or suffer more. (I think we all know which one is true.)
My neck pain didn’t arrive uninvited out of the blue. I’d been going to chiropractors for decades. But the constant ache of the past year has been different: inescapable—or, I should say, inevitable. “The onset of cervical spondylosis is gradual. It’s a natural consequence of aging, and once you have it, it’s only going to get worse,” said Clifford Schob, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Millburn, New Jersey. “It might not get worse rapidly, but it will never go away. Wear-and-tear is a natural consequence of being alive. The good news is,” he added, “you can take steps to help resolve the pain and improve neck function.”
Dr. Schob gave me a list to strategies to ease soreness and reduce pain:
1. Take a Pill
He recommended the occasional OTC anti-inflammatory pain reliever like Aleve or Advil. I’m not into those pills personally because of side effects and fears of dependency. But I have made a mental commitment to take one 500-mg capsule of turmeric per day. While working with nutrition expert Ross Bridgeford on his book The Alkaline Reset Cleanse (I co-write and ghost-write books as well as articles like this one), I was cooking and juicing with so much turmeric, an anti-inflammatory superfood, that every utensil in my kitchen turned orange. In hindsight, that was a good period for my neck pain.
I used so much turmeric, every utensil in my kitchen turned orange.
Dr. Schob himself takes daily joint-helper glucosamine pills, although he pointed out that most medical literature considers glucosamine as effective as a placebo, which isn’t saying much. Veterinarians recommend it for dogs and horses, though, and if it’s good enough for Rover … I say, why not try it? A one-month supply of glucosamine with turmeric costs less than a dollar a day—and could help.
2. Stretch (Even If It’s In a Funky Collar)
As Dr. Schob tells patients, “You have to work out the stiffness, work out the soreness,” and he recommends exercise or physical therapy to limber up and elongate back and neck muscles. Whole-body exercise that emphasizes balance, flexibility, and strength is perfect for cervical neck health. I have been very good about going to yoga class in the last month after a year off (not coincidentally, my most painful year) and have noticed real improvement. Exercise after 50 is not about looking good—like losing weight—it’s about feeling good, pain- and symptom-free. Also in the stretch category: Consider an at-home traction device that lengthens and stretches the cervical spine. Every day, for 20 minutes, I wear a traction collar (EverRelief, $26.99 at Amazon). I look ridiculous wearing it; it pushes up all the fat in my cheeks, chipmunk-style. And it’s not entirely comfortable, but, man does it feel good when it comes off, and my neck looks swan-like, too.
3. Heat Things Up
A heating pad. A wet towel microwaved to steamy. Put those on your neck to make the stiffness and soreness melt away. Every other night, I take a hot bath with lavender Epsom salts, multitasking heat therapy with aromatherapy, and visualize that pain is washing away. It nothing else, it’s relaxing.
4. Avoid Overextending Yourself
When you really extend your neck (by, say, looking at the stars), the bone spurs in your cervical vertebrae push against your spinal cord and the nerve roots coming out of the spine (doesn’t that conjure up an attractive image?). You want to do the exact opposite, instead. So look down; keep your neck slightly bent forward as a matter of course, when you’re walking around, working, or watching TV. Put the monitor straight ahead of you, positioned low so you look slightly down. Even a horizontal gaze at the screen might fatigue neck muscles over time. “A good ergonomic workstation that keeps your neck in the right position is crucial for reducing strain and pain,” said the doctor. If you find yourself rubbing your neck after an hour of keyboarding, you might need to reorganize your workspace. Side benefit for introverts: If you are always looking down, at work and on the street, you can avoid getting sucked into many annoying conversations.
Keep your neck slightly bent forward when you’re walking, working, or watching TV.
5. Sleep In a Neutral Head Position
“Avoid any pillow that extends the neck,” said Dr. Schob. “When you sleep on your back, you head should be slightly elevated, the neck slightly flexed.” You don’t want your neck with no support, being curved back too far, nor do you want it elevated so much that you’ve eliminated your natural cervical curvature. “If you sleep on your side, fluff up a feather pillow and lie so your head and neck are parallel with your body,” says Dr. Schob. “Get in position with your head neutral and chin slightly tucked.” That way, you won’t wake up with a crick from “sleeping funny.” (Face facts: After 50, the crick isn’t from sleeping funny anyway; it’s that age-related degeneration in your neck. So, yeah, sad but true.)
Train yourself to sleep with your neck in ‘neutral’ position.
I feel better now, knowing that I can reduce chronic neck pain with anti-inflammatory pills, exercise and stretching, direct heat, and not looking up. Every shopping item linked above cost less than one visit to the chiropractor. Honestly, after three days of looking down and doing the chin tuck stretch (below), my trapezius pain is all but gone. Today, I came home from an hours-long meeting, dropped my computer bag on the table, and realized I hadn’t thought about my aching neck or back all day until that moment. So things are looking up, even if I never do again.
6. Try This Now: Chin Tuck Stretch for Instant Relief
Stand or sit up tall with both feet on the floor.
Lower your chin to your chest by dropping the head.
While in this tucked position, push your head and jaw back and hold it for five beats. You will feel the stretch down your neck and back.
Dr. Schob says this stretch opens up the space between vertebrae and clears nerve routes. Whatever is compressed or pinched will get some breathing room—and some relief.
Valerie Frankel is a ghostwriter who has collaborated with iconic celebrities and VIPs on bestselling novels and non-fiction projects, including Joan Rivers (New York Times bestseller Men Are Stupid And They Like Big Boobs), Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (New York Times bestseller A Shore Thing), Stacy London (New York Times bestseller The Truth About Style), Shay Mitchell of Pretty Little Liars (the novels Bliss and A.S.A.P.), Ivana Trump (Raising Trump), Jeanine Pirro (He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice) and others. Under her own name, Val has published 15 novels and is an award-winning journalist. She was articles editor at Mademoisellemagazine and as a freelance writer, she has been a regular contributor to Self, Parenting, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and the New York Times.