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Spinal Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Arthritis of the Spine)

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. It is a condition in which the protective cartilage that cushions the tops of bones degenerates, or wears down. This causes swelling and pain. It may also cause the development of osteophytes, or bone spurs. 

What Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

Osteoarthritis of the spine is a breakdown of the cartilage of the joints and discs in the neck and lower back.

Sometimes, osteoarthritis produces spurs that put pressure on the nerves leaving the spinal column. This can cause weakness and pain in the arms or legs. 

Who Gets Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

In general, osteoarthritis happens as people get older. Younger people may get it from one of several different causes:

  • injury or trauma to a joint
  • a genetic defect involving cartilage

 

For people younger than age 45, osteoarthritis is more common among men. After age 45, osteoarthritis is more common among women. Osteoarthritis occurs more often among people who are overweight. It also occurs more frequently in those who have jobs or do sports that put repetitive stress on certain joints.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

Osteoarthritis of the spine may cause stiffness or pain in the neck or back. It may also cause weakness or numbness in the legs or arms if it is severe enough to affect spinal nerves or the spinal cord itself. Usually, the back discomfort is relieved when the person is lying down.

Some people experience little interference with the activities of their lives. Others become more severely disabled.

In addition to the physical effects, a person with osteoarthritis might also experience social and emotional problems. For instance, a person with osteoarthritis that hinders daily activities and job performance might feel depressed or helpless.

How Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine Diagnosed?

The best way to confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis is by X-ray. The doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical exam to see if the person has pain, tenderness, loss of motion involving the neck or lower back, or if symptoms are suggestive, signs of nerve involvement such as weakness, reflex changes, or loss of sensation. 

The doctor may order certain tests to aid in the diagnosis of osteoarthritis of the spine. These tests include:

  • X-rays to look for bone damage, bone spurs, and loss of cartilage or disc; however, X-rays are not able to show early damage to cartilage.
  • Blood tests to exclude other diseases
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show possible damage to discs or narrowing of areas where spinal nerves exit

 

How Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine Treated?

In most cases, treatment of spinal osteoarthritis is geared toward relieving the symptoms of pain and increasing a person's ability to function. The goal is to have a healthy lifestyle.

WebMD Medical Reference

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