Cervical Spondylosis and Exercise

Will I have to Give Up My Gym Membership?

Question: I'm 27 years old and have been going to my local gym for about 20 days. I've really started to like it, but an x-ray revealed that I have cervical spondylosis. I don't have any neck pain, so can I continue going to the gym by avoiding exercises that don't put pressure on the neck? Or would it be best if I just stop going?
—Burlington, VTYoung Man packing a gym bagAnswer: Cervical spondylosis is defined as bone spurs growing off the cervical vertebrae (spinal bones of the neck) as a result of degeneration of the discs, which are pads in between these vertebrae.

In most cases, this disc degeneration is considered a normal part of the aging process—and and so are the resulting bone spurs (cervical spondylosis). Localized neck injury or trauma can also produce or accelerate this process. In fact, cervical spondylosis is seen in 10% of individuals by the age of 25 years and in 95% by the age of 65 years.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that imaging tests, including x-ray, MRI, or CT scans often reveal abnormal findings such as bone spurs, disc degeneration, and disc bulges and herniations in individuals with no neck pain at all. In fact, most people with degenerative changes of the cervical spine remain symptom free.

I'm not surprised that as a 27-year-old, you're not experiencing neck pain. When causing symptoms, cervical spondylosis usually affects individuals over age 40 and is caused by compression of nerve structures in the neck. This may produce neck pain, arm symptoms, and if severe, spinal cord symptoms. If you are having any of these symptoms, you should check with your doctor before continuing a gym program.

Since you have been enjoying your gym program for almost 3 weeks and are starting to like it, you may be one of those individuals for whom a finding of cervical spondylosis on x-ray is of no clinical relevance. Again, check with your doctor if you are having symptoms related to the neck, or any other medical conditions that may limit or modify your ability to exercise. Otherwise, enjoy the exercises.

Some recent studies have actually demonstrated that the discs in your spine thrive on exercise, especially exercises which are neither too light nor too heavy, but "just right." You might call this the Goldilocks effect. So for most people with no medical reasons to abstain, an x-ray finding of cervical spondylosis does not mean that you cannot enjoy regular, sensible gym (and non-gym) exercises. When in doubt, you can always just walk. It's a great—and very safe—exercise.