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Osteoarthritis Health Center

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Spinal Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Arthritis of the Spine)

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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.

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
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