Despite their painful-sounding name, bone spurs often have no symptoms. They’re actually smooth projections that extend from your bones, frequently where two bones meet in a joint. The formation of bone spurs, called osteophytosis, is much more common after the age of 60. But younger adults can develop bone spurs, too.
If you have osteoarthritis, a risk factor for bone spurs, you should know what symptoms to look for and when treatment may be necessary.
Most of the time, bone spurs are small and cause no painful symptoms. You may notice them if they form around your finger joints, because they may make your fingers look a little knotted. Only about 40 percent of people 60 and older will experience bone spur symptoms painful enough to require medical attention.
When bone spurs, also called osteophytes, form in the knee, you may find it painful to straighten your leg. Bone spurs can also form in the shoulder, which can irritate your rotator cuff and cause pain and swelling there. In the hip, bone spurs can also be painful and limit movement.
One of the most common sites for bone spur growth is the spine. If spurs form on the inside of a vertebra, they can press against the spinal cord or its nerve roots. This can cause not only pain, but also numbness in your back, arms, and legs.
If you have pain or stiffness in a joint that does not get better within a day or two, see your doctor. It could be bone spurs or any number of conditions. Early diagnosis and treatment of bone spurs can limit the damage they cause. If you notice pain and swelling in a joint that doesn’t subside with ice and rest, talk to your doctor about the possibility of osteophytosis.
By far the most common cause of bone spurs is osteoarthritis. That’s the type of arthritis caused by long-term wear and tear on your joints. Osteoarthritis tends to develop in older adults, but it can begin earlier if a joint has been damaged by a sports injury, accident, or other cause.
In a joint with arthritis, the cartilage at the end of your bones wears out. Cartilage is the flexible tissue that connects and cushions the bones in a joint. As part of the body’s attempt to repair the damaged cartilage, new bone material emerges in the form of bone spurs.
In the spine, a soft, springy disk cushions each vertebra. As the disks wear down and become thinner over time, the spine becomes more susceptible to bone spur formation.
Aging is the biggest risk factor for bone spurs. Over time, all your joints suffer at least a little wear and tear. This is true even if you have no obvious injuries. Your risk is also higher if you were born with structural problems, such as scoliosis (a curved spine). Poor posture can also put you at greater risk for bone spurs.
There may be a hereditary factor, too. You’re more likely to get them if you have a parent with bone spurs.
If you have joint pain caused by bone spurs, you may be able to see or feel a lump under the skin. In many cases, though, you won’t be able to identify the source of your pain.
Your doctor will likely use X-rays to look for changes in bone structure. Other imaging tests may be used, too. These include MRI tests, which provide detailed views of soft tissue, such as ligaments and cartilage, and CT scans, which can provide more detailed images of bones and other tissue than X-rays.
Your doctor will also evaluate your medical history, listen to a description of your symptoms, and perform a medical exam. If the suspected bone spur is in your knee, for example, your doctor will have you move your knee while he feels for any abnormalities in the joint.
If a bone spur causes only mild pain and is only noticeable once in a while, then your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter painkiller. A steroid shot may also be helpful in temporarily reducing swelling and inflammation. You can usually have up to three steroid injections in the same joint in one year.
Physical therapy may help if it focuses on strengthening the muscles around your affected joint, including the spine. It can also help you move in a way that avoids nerve pressure.
If the bone spur is pressing on a nerve or significantly limiting your range of motion, you may need to have it treated surgically. If the bone spur is in the spine, a type of “spacer” can sometimes be placed in the affected vertebra to keep the osteophyte from pressing on a nerve. A bone spur in the shoulder or knee can sometimes be removed with arthroscopic surgery, which uses special tools to reach the joint through very small incisions.
Tips for pain management
Take the following steps to help control your bone spur pain:
- Lose weight, if you’re overweight or obese, to relieve the burden on your joints.
- Wear shoes that offer good foot support to cushion your feet and other joints when you walk.
- Start physical therapy to learn exercises that will strengthen the muscles around the joint and stabilize it, too.
- Maintain proper posture when standing or sitting to help preserve back strength and keep your spine properly aligned.
- Use over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen, when inflammation and pain flare up because of a bone spur. Ask your doctor before taking an anti-inflammatory drug.
Arthroscopic surgery is an outpatient procedure with a much faster recovery time than open surgery. However, it can still take several weeks before the surgically treated joint feels normal again. Surgically treated vertebrae can also leave you pain free after a few weeks.
If you don’t have surgery, but opt for physical therapy and pain medication (either in the form of pills or steroid injections), understand that the bone spurs will still be a part of you and may cause discomfort in the future.
If you know what exercises to do and how to maintain good posture, you may be able to minimize the impact bone spurs have on your quality of life.