What is spinal osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis of the spine occurs when the cartilage between the joints and discs in the spine break down.

In some cases, osteoarthritis produces bone spurs that squeeze the nerves exiting the spinal column, causing pain or weakness in the arms or legs.

Causes of spinal osteoarthritis

Younger people can develop spinal osteoarthritis from:

  • Genetic defects that involve the cartilage
  • Injury to a joint in the spine

Risk factors for spinal osteoarthritis

  • Age — as people age, they are at a higher risk for developing spinal osteoarthritis.
  • Gender — women are more likely to develop spinal osteoarthritis.
  • Occupation — some occupations that require heaving lifting and repetitive movement on the spine can increase your risk of developing spinal osteoarthritis.
  • Genetics — some people can inherit spinal osteoarthritis from their family.
  • Weight — the extra weight carried by obese patients can add extra pressure on the spine.

Symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis

The most common symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in the back or neck.

Other symptoms are:

  • Weakness in the legs or arms
  • Numbness in the legs or arms
  • Back discomfort when person is lying down
  • Interruption to daily activities from pain

If the symptoms are so severe that they hinder day-to-day activities, you can begin to feel depressed.

Diagnosis of spinal osteoarthritis

Spinal osteoarthritis can be diagnosed in a full medical and physical exam with your primary care doctor.

During the medical exam, your doctor will ask you what your symptoms are, when they occur and when they are at their worst.

After the medical exam, your provider will take a physical exam of the body. He or she will perform tests that evaluate your pain, tenderness, loss of sensation or loss of motion in the lower back.

An x-ray can confirm the spinal osteoarthritis diagnosis and show bone damage, bone spurs or cartilage loss.

The physician may also order the following diagnostic tests:

  • Blood tests — a blood test can exclude other diseases that have similar symptoms.
  • MRI — an MRI can show damage to the discs or if there is narrowing in the area where the spinal nerves exit.

Treatments for spinal osteoarthritis

Early treatment for spinal osteoarthritis is aimed at relieving any symptoms from the condition.

Working with your doctor, he or she may recommend losing weight (if needed) and exercising. Maintaining a healthy weight and staying active can help you increase flexibility, improve mood, strengthen the heart, improve blood flow and make daily tasks easier.

Nonsurgical treatments for spinal osteoarthritis

  • Medications — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications can be used to relieve pain.
  • Topical ointments — ointments that are applied to the skin.
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation — physical therapy can help you maintain your day-to-day activities by keeping you active and strengthening the muscles around the damaged joint to reduce the pressure.
  • Injections — if the pain from spinal osteoarthritis is moderate to severe and you are unable to perform day-to-day activities, a steroid injection may help relieve the pain.

Surgical treatments for spinal osteoarthritis

Although most patients with spinal osteoarthritis can be treated without surgery, some patients will find relief from surgical interventions. Surgery is indicated when bladder or bowel function is impaired, when the nervous system is damaged or when walking becomes difficult.

The goal of fusion surgery are to stop the motion in the joint, which will stop the pain.

In a spinal fusion surgery, your orthopedic surgeon will take a small piece of bone from another portion of your body and place the bone between the ends of your affected joint. The surgeon will close the space in the joint with metal screws, wires or plates that will stay in your body after the joint heal. The joint will eventually grow together.

Typically, spinal fusion surgery is not indicated for spinal osteoarthritis unless only one vertebrae is impacted. Multiple fusions are not recommended.

Recovery from spinal osteoarthritis

Recovery after surgery to correct spinal osteoarthritis can take as long as 12 weeks.

Stiffness and some loss of motion is typical after this type of surgery. Physical therapy can help strength the muscles around the affected area.

Find an orthopedic doctor nearby

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