Arthritis is a generic medical term used to describe over 100 different medical conditions that cause pain, swelling and inflammation, primarily in the joints. Arthritis in the spine is one form that can be painful and debilitating. It often affects individuals who are age 40 or older. If left untreated individuals may suffer from physiological problems that result from muscle weakness, as well as depression and anxiety.
The causes of spinal arthritis are, as yet, unknown. There are several theories about the origination of the symptoms but they have not be proven in clinical research. Some believe that they are caused from excess stress, such as weight, weight lifting or excess stress or strain on the job. Others believe that it is a result of imbalances in the body that adversely affect posture that then results in back and neck pain.
Arthritis in the spine results from the breakdown of protective cartilage, lubricating fluid and the development of bone spurs in the spinal joints. A normal and healthy vertebral joint moves easily and smoothly. As we age, the cartilage, in all joints, begins to erode slowly and flake. The wear and tear can account for some of the discomfort and pain. (1)
During this same period the lubricating fluid in the joints may leak and become less effective. The bones come in contact with each other directly which causes the growth of bone spurs in the joints. These spurs cause bone to bone friction and can potentially cause a pinched nerve.
People who suffer from spinal arthritis can also have neurological symptoms because of the area of the body that is affected by the arthritic changes. These neurological symptoms can be tingling, numbness or weakness that are a result of nerve impingement from bone spurs.
The person can also experience a loss of flexibility and range of motion, much like the loss of range of motion in other joints which are affected by arthritis. Stiffness will be especially noticeable in the morning or at other times the person has remained stationary for a length of time. (2)
Spinal arthritis can occur along the entire length of the spine or in specific areas, such as the lumbar sacral area (lower back, most common) or the cervical (neck) area. In the former case the individual will have more pain with sitting or lifting and in the latter case the individual will suffer more pain with motion related to the neck.
Diagnosis of spinal arthritis will occur in much the same manner as other forms of degenerative osteoarthritis. Because there is no definitive cause identified there is also no one test. Most physicians will do a thorough medical history and physical examination as well as imaging studies to determine the extent of the bony damage in the spine. The doctor may recommend blood tests to rule out other conditions as well. (3)
In some cases that have degenerated to the point that the individual cannot function each day, the surgeon may consider several different procedures, most of which will remove the bone spurs that initiate the symptoms. A foraminotomy can decompress the intervertebral foramen; a percutaneous discectomy will remove a herniated disc; and a laminotomy will relieve pressure in the spinal canal and the exiting nerves.
In the early stages of the condition over-the-counter medications may relieve the inflammation and pain but as the condition continues to progress patients may be forced to consider other options. One new option is a laser spine surgery designed to reduce pain and inflammation while reducing the risk of decreased range of motion, reducing the risk of anesthesia and immediate results that are faster and less painful to recover from.
Spinal arthritis isn’t a death sentence. In fact, many who suffer will continue to enjoy active and productive lives by managing their symptoms and condition proactively.
(1) Spine Universe: Arthritis and your Spine
(2) American Academy of Orthpedic Surgeons: Cervical Spondylosis
(3) American Association of Neurological Surgeons: Cervical Spine