Spinal osteoarthritis: symptoms, causes, and treatment

Spinal osteoarthritis (OA) is a chronic degenerative disease of the spine that involves wear and tear of the spinal joints. Spinal OA usually causes pain, stiffness, and inflammation of the joints in the spine.

OA is the most common type of arthritis. Although it can affect any joint in the body, it most commonly affects the spine, the small joints in the hands and feet, and weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. The symptoms of spinal OA include pain, inflammation, and stiffness or loss of flexibility in the back and neck.

The treatment options for spinal OA include pain medications and physical therapy. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

This article provides an overview of spinal OA, including the symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

The Arthritis Foundation notes that spinal OA is the most common type of OA that affects the back. Spinal OA can occur anywhere across the spine, but it usually affects the low back and, sometimes, the neck.

OA of the spine occurs when the cartilage that protects the facet joints erodes. Facet joints are small joints in the vertebrae at the back of the spine. As the cartilage breaks down and becomes thinner, the spinal bones begin to grind against each other when a person moves.

Ultimately, bony projections called bone spurs or osteophytes can form in the joints, pressing on nerves and causing damage and pain. Fluids may also build up, leading to swelling or inflammation in the joints.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases notes that people with spinal OA may experience difficulty performing daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, or getting in and out of a chair.

Anyone can get spinal OA, although the likelihood increases with age. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, X-ray studies show that 50% of people aged 65 years or older have evidence of OA in at least one joint.

Learn more about OA.

Spinal OA is a progressive condition that can start slowly and worsen over time. There may be no symptoms in the early stages, but, over time, a person may experience excruciating pain after waking up, doing physical activity, or sitting for long periods. Sometimes, a sudden movement can trigger symptoms.

People may experience various symptoms of spinal OA, including:

  • pain
  • stiffness or loss of flexibility
  • tenderness and swelling
  • limited range of movement
  • a grinding or popping feeling in the spine, known as crepitus

Scientists do not know the exact cause of spinal OA. However, several factors may increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. These factors include,

  • Age: The risk of spinal OA increases with age. This may be due to bodily changes often associated with aging.
  • Injury: Injury or repetitive trauma to the back due to sports, accidents, or work-related activities can affect the functions and structures of the spine and result in spinal OA.
  • Sex: OA is more common in females than in males.
  • Genetics and hereditary factors: Some people with OA have family members with the same condition.
  • Obesity: Access body weight can put pressure on the back and spine, increasing the risk of damage.
  • Stress on the joints: Engaging in activities that involve repetitive stretching, bending, and twisting can stress the facet joints. Examples include physically demanding jobs, some sporting activities, and repetitive tasks.

A doctor, often a rheumatologist, will check the person’s complete medical history and ask them about:

  • their symptoms
  • the pattern, progression, and location of pain
  • the range of motion in the upper and lower back
  • any family history of OA

They will then perform a physical exam to assess a person for spinal OA. They will also check the spinal joints for any signs of the disease.

If the doctor suspects spinal OA, they will likely order the following tests and scans to determine the stage or progression of the disease:

There is no cure for OA of the spine. However, the treatment aims to relieve the symptoms while improving mobility and preventing further damage to the spinal joints. The treatment options include self-care, medications, physical therapy, and, in some cases, surgery.

Self-care

A person might be able to reduce their spinal OA symptoms by:

  • reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
  • staying mobile with exercises such as yoga and tai chi
  • trying acupuncture
  • trying massage therapy
  • using assistive devices, such as braces and canes
  • performing exercises to strengthen the core

Medications

Doctors may prescribe the following medications to treat spinal OA:

Physical therapy

Physical therapy can help a person with spinal OA manage the condition by improving their range of movement and preventing further injury.

A physical therapist can help a person with spinal OA by:

  • suggesting exercises to strengthen the spine, abdomen, and hip muscles
  • teaching exercises to stretch the spine, arms, or legs, which may help reduce disease progression
  • suggesting ways of doing daily tasks, such as getting out of bed or the bathtub, and reducing the risk of falls
  • helping a person improve their activity levels if they are carrying excess weight

surgery

If nonsurgical treatments prove ineffective, doctors may sometimes recommend spinal fusion surgery to alleviate severe or worsening symptoms.

Spinal fusion surgery typically involves using small screws and rods to stabilize the spine and eliminate movement between the vertebrae. A surgeon may also place small pieces of bone called grafts between the vertebrae to hold them together. The bone grafts usually come from the person’s own body, but doctors may sometimes use grafts from a cadaver or synthetic graft substitutes.

Learn about natural treatments for OA.

There is no cure for spinal OA. The treatment focuses on helping people manage the condition and slowing disease progression.

People can increase their chance of leading a healthy and active life by getting a diagnosis as soon as possible, working with a healthcare team, and following a treatment plan.

Without treatment, OA can negatively affect a person’s life expectancy, although the exact reason for this remains unclear. It may be that various factors, such as low walking frequency, anxiety, and depression, contribute to the increased risk of mortality.

Spinal OA is a degenerative disease of the spinal joints that leads to stiffness, pain, and reduced range of motion.

Many factors can cause or contribute to the condition, including age, family history, and cumulative stress on the joints.

The treatment options depend on the severity of the disease, but they include self-care, medication, physical therapy, and surgery.

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