Oh, my aching back: Learning about spinal osteoarthritis

For many of us, pain is a big part of the aging process: Our joints may get stiff and achy, and we may have trouble moving around the way we used to. Since the back has joints just like the other bony parts of the body (such as your hips and knees), it’s no surprise that your back may also hurt as you get older.

Osteoarthritis

There are other possible reasons besides aging, though, for back pain: spinal osteoarthritis is one likely reason. The term osteoarthritis (OA) has its origin in three Greek words meaning bone, joint, and inflammation. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million Americans. It can occur in almost any joint in your body due to the “wear and tear” of aging and years of activity. Osteoarthritis of any joint is also known as degenerative joint disease,  while osteoarthritis of the spine is called spondylosis.

According to experts, there are several possible causes of OA:

  • Normal “wear and tear” on the joints, as a result of aging
  • Previous injury (often sport- or accident-related)
  • Being overweight or obese, which puts extra stress on the joints
  • Repeated injuries to (or overuse of) the affected joints
  • A family history of osteoarthritis
  • Lack of exercise

Osteoarthritis often causes pain when the protective surface of the bones in the joint wears away over time, or when bones get “rough around the edges”. As the surface breaks down, the bones that it originally protected may start to grind painfully against each other. There may also be a “crunching” feeling as the joint moves, or a feeling of stiffness when the joint has been at rest for a long period of time. While osteoarthritis usually targets the hip, knee, or hand joints, it can affect the spine, too.

Spinal osteoarthritis

Just like cartilage protects your knee joints, your backbone (vertebrae) has spongy discs located between each section of bone. These discs keep the bony parts of your spine from directly rubbing against each other and causing you pain. Vertebrae can lose their original shape as they age, though, and develop rough edges; these edges can irritate the nerves from your spinal cord, which pass in-between the vertebrae. As these rough edges develop, they may also cause a narrowing of the spaces that the nerves pass through. This is called spinal stenosis.

As you age, the spinal discs may get smaller, less spongy, or broken (herniated). These problems happen for many of the same reasons listed earlier: due to your weight, from injuries or overuse, heredity, low level of physical activity, or just plain aging. In addition, bone spurs (extra pieces of bone called osteophytes) may start to grow along the edges of some vertebrae.

Arthritis, bone spurs and disc problems can cause certain types of painful symptoms, depending on their location. In general, spinal osteoarthritis leads to back or neck pain, back stiffness, and/or problems with bending over or other movements, (such as standing). Spinal osteoarthritis may occur anywhere from the neck down to your tailbone, but the lower back (the lumbar spine), and the neck (the cervical spine) are the areas most often affected.

Osteoarthritis of the lower back (lumbar spine)

Osteoarthritis of the lower back can make it difficult to move around first thing in the morning: your back may feel stiff for about 30 minutes after rising. You may also feel pain after being highly active, or after sitting for long stretches of time. If spinal nerves are being pinched because of bone spurs or other changes in your spine, you may also feel tingling and/or pain that radiates down one or both legs.

Osteoarthritis of the neck (cervical spine)

Osteoarthritis of the neck can lead to neck pain, less neck flexibility, and pain, weakness, or numbness in one (or both) arms or hands. There may also be a “pins and needles” or burning sensation in the hands or arms.

What to do next

If you start to feel pain anywhere in your back that doesn’t get better in short order, see your health care provider. Many things need to be considered as sources of chronic back pain. If the cause of your pain is spinal OA, then – just like other types of osteoarthritis – there may be no cure. There are many treatments that can make your life more comfortable, though, and help your back deal with the changes it is experiencing as it continues to support you.

Resources

Arthritis Foundation
http://www.arthritis.org (search on “osteoarthritis back pain” and “osteoarthritis neck pain”)

Arthritis Today
http://www.arthritistoday.org (search on “osteoarthritis”)

Mayo Clinic
http://mayoclinic.com (search on “osteoarthritis”)

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
http://www.niams.nih.gov (search on “osteoarthritis”)