I recently had some X-rays taken of my neck and upper back. There were two large bone spurs in my cervical spine from C3 to C5. I'm not having any symptoms but the doctor suggested taking these out anyway. What could happen if I don't have them removed?

Osteophytes or bone spurs are a common finding in X-rays of the spine in the aging adult. They are especially common after the age of 50 and can be seen most often in the cervical spine (neck) or lumbar spine (low back).

Osteophytes don't always cause problems. Many people don't even know they have them until they have an X-ray for something else. If the bony growth gets large enough it can press on soft tissues in the area.

The symptoms depend on where the osteophyte is located. If the bone spurs are in the anterior (front) of the spinal column then in the C3-5 area, the pharynx (throat) or larynx (voice box) can be compressed. The patient would report difficulty swallowing, talking, or even breathing.

With an anterior cervical osteophyte symptoms would get worse with forward flexion (forward bend) of the head and neck. Posterior osteophytes are more likely to press on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots as they leave the spinal canal. Symptoms of posterior pressure include neck, shoulder, and/or arm pain, numbness, and tingling. Prolonged pressure can cause muscle weakness and atrophy.

There have never been any reports of sudden death from cervical spine osteophytes. Most patients start to have symptoms early on. Surgery to remove the extra bone is usually done before serious problems develop. Unless your doctor thinks your case is an emergency you can probably wait until you start to have symptoms. Don't let it go too long after symptoms begin or you may be facing permanent nerve damage.