Understanding Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Spine specialist feeling patient's spine during diagnosis

Arthritis is a generalized term that refers to a type of degenerative joint disease, and there are multiple different types of arthritis for every joint in the body. Learning more about the arthritis type affecting a patient can help the patient better understand their condition and manage their health. At Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO), located throughout northern New Jersey, the surgical and medical team works across disciplines to deliver expert care for patients with arthritis and other conditions. Learn about osteoarthritis of the spine, its symptoms, and the available treatment options.

What Is Spinal Osteoarthritis?

One of the most common forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis is a chronic, degenerative joint disease with no known cure. It can develop in the joints of the spine, as well as any other joint within the body. While it can develop anywhere along the spine, the lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck) are most often affected. Risk factors for arthritis of the spine include:

  • Age: Middle-aged and older adults are more likely to have arthritis.
  • Gender: Women are more likely to have arthritis than men.
  • Genetics: Certain genetic defects may be underlying factors.
  • Weight/obesity: Excess weight puts added stress on the joints.
  • Back injury: Severe joint injury can increase the likelihood of developing arthritis.
  • Lifestyle/job: Repeated overuse or misuse (e.g., improper lifting or playing contact sports) can lead to joint issues.

What causes osteoarthritis of the spine? It depends on the patient. Osteoarthritis is classified in two ways: primary and secondary. Primary osteoarthritis has no known cause but is associated with wear and tear of the joints that affects the cartilage between joints. Secondary arthritis develops because of injury, trauma, or another health issue.

Spinal arthritis often affects the facet joints connecting the 33 vertebrae bones of the spine. Arthritis can ultimately affect the spinal canal and spinal column itself.

Spinal discs sit between each of the vertebrae and act as natural cushioning between the bones. These intervertebral discs absorb shock and allow for a range of motion. Over time, the discs become increasingly thin, causing more pressure to be put on the joints and adjacent vertebrae. This leads to friction, cartilage damage, irritation of the adjacent bone, osteoarthritis, and resulting pain from bone on bone or compression of the adjacent neuronal structures. Osteoarthritis also can lead to the formation of bone spurs, which can lead to pinched nerves.

What Are the Signs of Spinal Osteoarthritis?

Symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis typically develop gradually. While the most common symptom is back pain, other signs can arise, and they vary by patient. Often, the symptoms are more prevalent first thing in the morning, after extended periods of sitting, or while lifting and bending. Common signs and symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis include:

  • Stiffness and loss of flexibility while straightening or twisting the back or neck
  • Crepitus (a grinding sensation) during movement, in advanced stages
  • Tenderness and swelling along the affected joints
  • Pain, weakness, or numbness in one or both arms

Because osteoarthritis shares some of the same symptoms as other spinal conditions, patients need to consult their primary care provider. They can determine if a more in-depth assessment is necessary from a spinal health specialist. The physician will learn the patient’s symptoms, evaluate their medical history, and may order imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs, to detect specific spinal issues.

Spinal Osteoarthritis Treatments

Once the patient is diagnosed, the physician will discuss the findings and review treatment options. Since there is no cure for arthritis yet, the goal of the treatment plan is to reduce joint pain and stiffness and increase mobility and quality of life. Osteoarthritis of the spine can be treated using conservative and surgical methods. Typically, non-surgical methods are the first course of action, such as:

  • Medications to help relieve inflammation and discomfort
  • Hot/cold therapy, steroid injections, and other pain management techniques
  • A geriatric or orthopedic physical therapy program tailored to the needs of the patient
  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) techniques

If conservative treatments prove ineffective, the neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon may recommend spine surgery. Common procedures to help patients with arthritis include:

  • Discectomy to remove a portion of the spinal disc(s) and relieve nerve pressure
  • Foraminotomy to widen foramina (passageways for spinal nerve roots) that have narrowed and caused nerve pressure
  • Laminectomy to remove portions of the lamina (bony arches on the spine) and relieve nerve or spinal cord compression
  • Disc replacement surgery to preserve joint motion and flexibility
  • Spinal fusion surgery to reinforce unstable portions of the spine

Find Compassionate Osteoarthritis Care at CNSO

At Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics, the comprehensive team includes neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists, assuring appropriate care. The team takes a conservative approach to arthritis treatment, from pain management to physical therapy, before recommending back surgery. CNSO locations span Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris, and Hudson counties in New Jersey for easy access to care. Contact CSNO for more information about effectively treating osteoarthritis of the spine

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics