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What is Spine Arthritis?

Spine arthritis is a condition characterized by the inflammation, degeneration, or wearing out of cartilage in the joints of the spine. The cartilage in the spine includes the spinal discs between the vertebrae and the cartilage lining the facet joints in the back of the spine. Spinal arthritis can cause pain and stiffness in the back and neck. 

Causes of Spine Arthritis

Spine arthritis is mostly caused by osteoarthritis in which degeneration occurs due to wear and tear or aging. It may be associated with:

  • Obesity
  • Lifting heavyweights
  • Spinal injury or trauma
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Gout
  • Psoriasis
  • Lyme disease
  • Genetic condition affecting cartilage

Symptoms of Spine Arthritis

The most common symptoms of spine arthritis include:

  • Pain in the neck or back that may radiate to the arm and leg
  • Stiffness in the back or neck
  • Reduced flexibility and mobility
  • Weakness and numbness in the arm or leg
  • Swelling
  • Grinding or crunching noises during movement
  • Fatigue

Pain and other symptoms are caused by compression of the spinal cord and nerves due to the narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis) with degeneration of the spine. The spinal disc may herniate or rupture compressing the spinal nerves. Bony overgrowths called osteophytes may form on the vertebrae in response to arthritis, also compressing on the nerves. Nerve compression can sometimes cause problems with swallowing or bowel and bladder problems.

Diagnosis of Spine Arthritis

Your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms and based on this, a physical examination of your spine is performed. Your mobility and function will be assessed. Some of the common tests that may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis include the following:

  • X-rays: High electromagnetic energy beams are used to produce images of the bones.
  • CT scan: Detailed cross-sectional images of the spine are obtained using multiple x-rays. 
  • MRI Scan: A large magnetic field and radio waves are used to obtain images of the spine, especially the soft tissues.
  • Nerve blocks: A nerve block is an injection of anesthetic and steroid medication around the spinal nerve root to determine the source of pain.
  • Medial branch block: This is an injection of local anesthetic that is administered near the medial branch nerves to see if the pain is relieved.

Treatment for Spine Arthritis

Treatment for spine arthritis is based on the severity of the condition and is mainly focused on relieving pain and improving function. Nonsurgical treatments include:  

  • Rest: Avoiding activities that may exacerbate symptoms and resting the area may be enough to heal the condition.  
  • Medications: Your doctor will recommend over-the-counter medications to reduce inflammation and pain
  • Physical therapy: Special exercises and other technique may be recommended to relieve pain
  • Application of ice and heat: Applying heat and ice can reduce pain and inflammation

If non-surgical methods are found to be ineffective, surgery will be recommended and may include:

  • Discectomy: Removal of all or part of a degenerated spinal disc.
  • Spinal fusion: In this technique, two or more vertebral bones are fused together, restricting the movement between the bones to control pain.
  • Laminectomy: The entire lamina (vertebral bone at the back of the spine) is removed to decompress the spinal cord.

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