Osteoarthritis of the Spine


In healthy people, there is protective cartilage that cushions the top portion of the bones. For those with osteoarthritis, this cartilage degenerates, meaning it wears down. The result may be pain and swelling, along with the potential for bone spurs, known as osteophytes. Osteoarthritis of the spine is when this breakdown of cartilage occurs within the joints of the neck as well as lower back.


Why People Develop Osteoarthritis of the Spine


Patients can develop osteoarthritis of the spine for various reasons, although it generally occurs as we age, according to WebMD. In the case of younger patients with this condition, it will likely be due to genetic defects affecting the cartilage or trauma or injury to a joint. Men are more likely to develop osteoarthritis in those younger than 45, while women become more likely above this age. The risk is also increased in those who are overweight, as well as among those who play sports or have jobs with repetitive stress on the joints.


Common Symptoms


Most patients with this condition will experience pain or stiffness in their neck or back. In cases where it becomes severe enough to impact your spinal nerves or even the spinal cord, you might also experience numbness or weakness of the arms and legs. According to Spine Health, the stiffness and pain are typically worse in the morning and evening, sometimes interrupting sleep.


The symptoms and severity of those symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Some patients have difficulty performing daily activities because of the stiffness and  pain. Others have very little interference in their day-to-day lives.


How It Is Diagnosed


As with any other condition affecting the spine, a diagnosis of osteoarthritis of the spine begins with a physical examination as well as looking at your medical history and family history. The physical exam will include a search for tenderness, pain, and loss of motion on the lower back or neck.


An x-ray can show degenerative arthritis,  and a CT scan can give very specific bony detail. An MRI, on the other hand, is very good at seeing definition in soft tissues such as the intervertebral disc and nerve roots.


Treating Osteoarthritis of the Spine


As with all other conditions, conservative treatments are attempted first to treat osteoarthritis of the spine before suggesting surgery. Treatments focus on increasing daily functioning while relieving pain. This may include PT, weight loss, exercise and modalities such as massage, using heat and cold, TENS units, over-the-counter pain medicines, NSAIDs, and prescription drugs.