What is osteoarthritis of the spine?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease affecting an estimated 27 million Americans. This disease is caused by the deterioration of cartilage. This is the smooth, elastic tissue that protects joints and provides the lubrication necessary for normal joint function.

Osteoarthritis can affect different joints in the body, such as those in the:

  • hands
  • knees
  • hips
  • spine

OA of the spine specifically affects the facet joints, the cartilage between the bones that make up the spine, and the ligaments in the spine.

As you age, the cartilage coating the facet joints can slowly wear away. Your invertebral discs are made primarily of water. These discs can dehydrate as you grow older. This can cause the discs in your spine to narrow and put increased pressure on facet joints.

OA of the spine causes various symptoms. The most common is back pain. Pain often starts in the lower back. In the early stages of the disease, you may only have pain in the mornings due to hours of inactivity. Since this is a progressive disease, symptoms typically worsen over time. Other symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine include:

  • joint tenderness
  • joint stiffness
  • limited range of motion
  • weakness or numbness in the legs or arms, tingling in the legs

Back pain caused by OA of the spine is often worse when sitting upright or standing. It usually improves when lying down. Some people who have osteoarthritis of the spine don’t have any symptoms.

OA is caused by slow deterioration of cartilage around joints in the lower back. The exact cause of this deterioration is unknown, but some people have a higher risk for the disease. This includes individuals who have experienced a spine trauma.

Experiencing an injury at a younger age can make your cartilage break down much faster. Obesity can also play a role in OA of the spine because extra body weight puts added stress on the joints in your spine. Other risk factors include:

  • advancing age
  • being a female
  • family history of osteoarthritis
  • working in an occupation involving repetitive stress
  • defective joints or cartilage at birth

Before diagnosing OA of the spine, your doctor may ask about your family history of the disease and complete a physical examination to check for tenderness, limited range of motion, and swelling in your back. Tell your doctor about any other symptoms you might have, such as numbness or weakness.

Imaging tests are commonly used to diagnose OA of the spine. These tests can check for bone damage, bone spurs, and loss of cartilage in your joints. Your doctor may order an X-ray or an MRI, which creates a detailed picture of your spine.

Since osteoarthritis of the spine has symptoms that are similar to other conditions, your doctor may also take your blood to rule out other diseases.

Some doctors order a joint fluid analysis. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a needle in the affected joint to collect a fluid sample. This test can determine whether symptoms are caused by OA, gout, or an infection.

Do not ignore potential symptoms of OA of the spine. This is a progressive disease that can worsen over time. Although some people have mild symptoms or discomfort, if left untreated OA can interfere with daily life and cause long-term disability.

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis of the spine, and the condition isn’t reversible. The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and to improve the mobility of the affected joint. Your doctor can discuss possible treatment options with you. Mild cases of OA of the spine may respond to over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). Take this medication as directed to avoid liver damage. You can also relieve pain and inflammation with ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (EC-Naprosyn). Side effects of these medications include upset stomach, bleeding problems, and organ damage, so it’s important to take as directed.

If symptoms don’t respond to over-the-counter medication, your doctor may suggest antidepressants used to treat chronic pain. Another option is a corticosteroid injection directly into affected joints. Surgery isn’t a common treatment for OA of the spine, but in severe cases you doctor may recommend a procedure to replace damaged discs in your spine.

Other therapies for treating and coping with osteoarthritis of the spine include:

  • gentle exercises (e.g., tai chi and yoga) to reduce pain and improve range of motion in the remaining cartilage
  • heat or cold therapy
  • occupational and physical therapy

Making healthy lifestyle changes can make it easier to live with osteoarthritis of the spine. Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can improve symptoms and alleviate spinal pressure. Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week is also effective. Exercise strengthens joints and improves range of motion. Other benefits of a regular exercise routine include better moods, a stronger heart, and increased blood flow. The more active you are, the easier it will be to manage everyday tasks without pain. Talk to your doctor about safe exercises. Options include walking, swimming, aerobic activities, yoga, pilates, tai chi, and strength training.

OA of the spine is a degenerative disease, but with treatment and lifestyle changes it’s possible to slow the progression of the disease and live a relatively pain-free, active life.

This disease is unpredictable. Some people with OA become partially or severely disabled due to joint deterioration in their spine. Others only have mild symptoms and the disease doesn’t interfere with their life. For a positive prognosis, don’t ignore symptoms and talk to your doctor if you have pain, numbness, weakness, or swelling in your back — or in any part of your body.