May is Arthritis Awareness Month so we want to highlight one of the main causes of back pain, osteoarthritis of the spine (also known as spinal osteoarthritis or spinal arthritis).
What exactly is osteoarthritis of the spine?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is often called a degenerative joint disease. In the spine, the breakdown of cartilage occurs between the facet joints of the spine where the vertebrae join.
As the cartilage breaks down, the bones begin to rub together, which causes irritation, more damage and the formation of bony outgrowths called spurs, which can press on nerves and cause radiating pain.
When your pain occurs in the lower back, it is referred to as lumbar osteoarthritis. When it occurs primarily in your neck, it is called cervical spondylosis.
Who’s at risk?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason for degenerative arthritis of the spine. Generally, we’ve found it’s a combination of factors contributing to the issue. Some of those include:
- Age: As we age, the makeup of our cartilage and synovial fluid changes, leading to degeneration.
- Gender: It is more common in men under forty-five and post-menopausal women, however, anyone who is required to perform repetitive motion over a long period of time is at risk.
- Excess weight: The more weight your joints have to sustain, the harder it is for them to endure.
- Genetics: A family history of osteoarthritis could mean you’re predisposed.
- Other diseases: If you already suffer from diabetes, other forms of arthritis, or long-term diseases or infections, talk about the risks with your doctor.
What are the symptoms?
You will likely feel stiffness and pain in your joints, generally worse in the morning and in the evening. As you make your way through the day, the pain will often lessen. If you have pain while sleeping, that is key indicator.
Other possible symptoms include (but aren’t limited to):
- Joint swelling, particularly when the weather changes.
- Tenderness when the joint or area is pressed.
- Aching pain aggravated by motion or radiating pain that moves to other areas like your pelvis, buttocks or thighs.
- Lack of flexibility in a joint.
- Pinching, tingling, or numbness in a nerve or the spinal cord area.
Osteoarthritis usually gets worse with time, so pay particular attention to pain that becomes steadily worse or spreads.
How will a doctor diagnose it?
Spinal arthritis is often confused with other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease or osteoporosis. Because of the similarities, it is critical to see a doctor if you’ve had back pain or stiffness in your joints for more than two weeks.
Your doctor will use a variety of findings to properly diagnose you, including your medical history, a physical exam, likely x-rays, and possibly a bone scan, CT scan, or MRI. It’s important not to downplay your pain so the doctor can accurately determine where to start your treatment.
What will treatment look like?
The best treatment for osteoarthritis of the spine is an early diagnosis and beginning your treatment plan as soon as possible. A combination of medication and exercise therapy is typically used to relieve your pain and slow the progression of the disease.
While most patients can be successfully managed via non-surgical care, surgery is an option for those in extreme amounts of pain, with prolonged joint damage and restricted mobility.
Where can you find more information?