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Spinal Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Arthritis of the Spine)

(continued)

How Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine Treated? continued...

Initial treatment may include losing weight if needed and then, for everyone, maintaining a healthy weight. It may also include exercise. Besides helping with weight management, exercise can also help:

  • increase flexibility
  • improve attitude and mood
  • strengthen the heart
  • improve blood flow
  • make it easier to do daily tasks

Some of the exercises associated with osteoarthritis treatment include swimming, walking, and water aerobics. Exercise may be broken down into the following categories:

  • Strengthening exercises. These exercises seek to make muscles that support the joints stronger. They work through resistance with the use of weights or rubber bands. 
  • Aerobic exercises. These are exercises that make the heart and circulatory system stronger. 
  • Range-of-motion exercises. These exercises increase the body’s flexibility.

Including rest periods in the overall treatment plan is necessary. But bed rest, splints, bracing, or traction for long periods of time is not recommended. 

There are non-drug treatments available for osteoarthritis, including:

  • massage
  • acupuncture
  • heat or cold compresses, which refers to placing ice or heated compresses onto the affected joint (check with your doctor about which option, or which combination of heat and cold options, is best for you.)
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) using a small device that emits electrical pulses onto the affected area
  • nutritional supplements

Pain medications may also be used to treat osteoarthritis. Over-the-counter products include acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also available over-the-counter in certain strengths. Examples include aspirin, naproxen sodium (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil). NSAIDs uncommonly have serious side effects. Those include stomach irritation and bleeding, and less frequently, kidney damage.

Topical ointments and creams are also available to treat pain. They are applied to the skin in the area that hurts, but generally, these are not effective. Examples of topical drugs include Ben-Gay and Aspercreme.

Your doctor may also recommend prescription drugs to treat symptoms, as there are no medications that reverse the process. These may include prescription painkillers, mild narcotics, or injections of corticosteroids around the spinal column called epidural steroid injections. It is important to understand that these injections do not correct the underlying problem and are sometimes used without clear indication of long-term benefit. Oral steroids are not commonly used.

Most cases of spinal osteoarthritis can be treated without surgery, but surgery is sometimes performed. Spinal osteoarthritis is one of the causes of spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal. In cases where bladder and bowel function is impaired, where the nervous system is damaged, or when walking becomes very difficult, surgery will likely be recommended.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 24, 2014
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