Key Points about Spinal Osteoarthritis

  • Spinal osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that affects the neck and lower back.
  • While some patients do not experience any symptoms associated with OA, others may experience back pain, limited range of motion, and stiffness or weakness in your extremities.
  • Older females with a family history of osteoarthritis are at high risk of developing OA of the spine.
  • Your doctor can diagnose spinal osteoarthritis during a clinic visit. Typically, your doctor will take your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order diagnostic testing to confirm your diagnosis.
  • Most patients can be treated with conservative, nonsurgical treatments.
Common related conditions
Spinal Stenosis Neck Sprains and Strains Cervical Osteoarthritis (Arthritis in the Neck)

Overview

Spinal osteoarthritis, also known as OA, is a degenerative joint disease that is caused by degenerating cartilage in the spine.

As you age, the discs in the spine start to lose water, causing the discs to narrow and increase pressure on the spinal joints.

As the cartilage around the spinal joints wears away, you may feel pain in your lower back or neck.

Spinal osteoarthritis is a common orthopedic condition that affects millions of Americans.

Spinal osteoarthritis causes

Spinal osteoarthritis may occur when the cartilage in your spine wears down as you age. The exact cause of the deterioration is not known.

Spinal osteoarthritis symptoms

The most common symptoms of osteoarthritis in the spine is back pain. Typically, the pain starts in the lower back and is more severe in the morning, when sitting upright or when standing.

Other OA symptoms include:

  • Tenderness or stiffness in your joints
  • Limited range of motion
  • Weakness in your extremities
  • Tingling or numbness in arms or legs

Spinal osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, so symptoms worsen as the disease progresses.

Spinal osteoarthritis complications

Complications associated with osteoarthritis include:

  • Cartilage breakdown, which can result in loose joint material.
  • Joint infections.
  • Bone death.
  • Bleeding in the joint.
  • Stress fractures.
  • Pinched nerves.
  • Tendon and ligament rupture.

Spinal osteoarthritis risk factors

There are a variety of factors that can increase your likelihood of developing osteoarthritis, including:

  • OA is more common in older people.
  • Women are more likely to develop OA of the spine.
  • Obese patients are more likely to develop spinal osteoarthritis.
  • Bone deformities.
  • Family history of spinal osteoarthritis.
  • Repetitive stress on the joint.
  • Prior injury to the spine or neck.

Spinal osteoarthritis prevention

While spinal osteoarthritis is not entirely preventable, taking care of yourself can help you prevent OA of the spine.

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight. Carrying excess weight puts extra pressure on the joints.
  • Try to exercise for 30 minutes every day.
  • Monitor and control your blood sugar levels. Your risk of developing osteoarthritis in the spine increase if you have high blood sugar.
  • Prevent further joint injury. Avoid activities that put extra stress on the joints. Use exercise equipment as instructed.

Spinal osteoarthritis diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose osteoarthritis of the spine. During a clinic visit, your doctor will take a full medical history to determine if you have a family history of osteoarthritis, as well as to understand what your symptoms are and when they started.

Your doctor will also perform a physical exam, checking for tenderness, swelling, redness, or limited flexibility in your joints.

To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor will likely order imaging and lab tests.

Imaging tests

  • X-rays — Your doctor will be able to see if you have a narrowed space between the joint bones.
  • MRI scan — While not commonly used to diagnose OA of the spine, an MRI can produce detailed images of the soft tissues, cartilage, and bones.

Lab tests

  • Blood tests — A blood test can reveal if you have other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis that are causing your pain.
  • Joint fluid analysis — A joint fluid analysis can help reveal if you have a condition that causes similar symptoms.

Spinal osteoarthritis treatment

While osteoarthritis cannot be cured, your doctor can develop a treatment plan to help you feel and move better.

Treatments for spinal osteoarthritis include:

Medications

  • Pain medications, such as Acetaminophen.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain.
  • Antidepressants to treat chronic pain.

Therapy

Your doctor may recommend physical or occupational therapy as treatments for osteoarthritis of the spine.

Your physical therapist can teach you exercises that will help relieve your pain, strengthen the muscles around the joint, and improve your flexibility.

An occupational therapist will help you relearn how to do tasks such as putting on a shirt or pants.

Non-Surgical treatments

When conservative treatments are not effectively helping relieve your symptoms, there are a variety of nonsurgical treatment options. Your doctor will determine if one of the following treatments are right for you:

  • Cortisone injections. Steroid injections may relieve your pain associated with osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Injections of hyaluronic acid. Lubrication injections may relieve pain by cushioning the spine.

Surgery

While surgery is not a standard treatment for osteoarthritis of the spine, it may be necessary to replace damaged discs in the spine.

When to seek care

Contact your doctor if you have stiffness or joint pain that does not go away with rest, icing, or conservative in-home treatments.

Next Steps

Your doctor will develop a treatment plan for your case. Follow the treatment instructions carefully.

Living a healthy lifestyle such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, or eating a healthy diet will help you live a more enjoyable life with spinal osteoarthritis. 

Call your doctor right away if your symptoms intensify or change, especially if you have numbness, weakness, or swelling in your back or neck.