Spine osteoarthritis – causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Last modified: September 11, 2019

Overview of osteoarthritis in the back and neck

Osteoarthritis in the back means that the cartilage between the vertebrae in the spine has begun to break down in one or more places. It often affects the neck and the lumbar region (lower back). The back is such a key part of our body that osteoarthritis here can be felt in almost all movements, sometimes considerably. But help is available. Spine osteoarthritis can affect both young and older people. However, it is more common in older people because both the cartilage and bone often become brittle as we age.

Osteoarthritis in the back and neck is a common part of the changes that come along with age, which may also include disc disease, spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis and muscle disease. These types of changes are frequently summarized as spondylosis.

Signs of spine osteoarthritis

Typical signs of osteoarthritis in the back are stiffness and difficulties to get started after having been stationary for a period. Back pain is also common. In combination, these factors make it difficult to move normally. Many people with osteoarthritis also experience tiredness in the back, a feeling of not having the energy to hold themselves upright. Abnormal fatigue and depression are also typical symptoms for long-term osteoarthritis. This is because chronic pain typically takes a lot of energy out of the body.

Common signs of osteoarthritis in the back or spine are:

●     Stiffness, making it difficult to use the back as usual

●     Difficulty in getting moving after sitting still or other types of rest

●     Pain in the entire back and neck, or parts of them

●     Abnormal fatigue and depression

If you think you have osteoarthritis in the back, it is important to get a diagnosis. With a diagnosis, you can start treatment. It is also important to try to continue to take physical exercise even though it may feel difficult.

Causes of osteoarthritis in the back and neck

Although research has still not discovered the exact cause of osteoarthritis, there is plenty of information about the risk factors. Sitting still and excess weight are two factors that are strongly linked to the development of osteoarthritis in the spine. In terms of being overweight, it is more a question of how heavy you are in relation to your strength. If your muscles are strong enough to support your body weight, you will significantly improve your situation when it comes to osteoarthritis.

But osteoarthritis is also related to the joint having been under the wrong kind of strain. This means that your posture and working position play a major role. For osteoarthritis in the back, your position when you sleep and rest also have a certain role. So make sure that you have a good mattress and a good pillow to ensure your back and neck can relax completely. This may help prevent the disease.

Diagnosing osteoarthritis in the spine

The diagnosis of osteoarthritis in the back is usually made by a doctor, physiotherapist or chiropractor. The specialist making the diagnosis will look at a combination of the symptoms you describe and what they discover during a physical examination. Since there are many other conditions of the back and neck that may resemble osteoarthritis, it may become necessary to have an X-ray or an MRI scan. This will be decided on a case-by-case basis. If there is any suspicion of osteoarthritis of the spine and/or neck, however, there is nothing to prevent you starting treatment with exercise.

Treating osteoarthritis in the spine

It may sometimes be necessary to take simple pain relievers when needed to deal with the pain that comes with osteoarthritis in the back, but this should not be seen as a treatment, only as additional relief. Instead, training the back muscles to stabilize and strengthen the back and neck is a better and more long-term option. This is best done together with a physiotherapist to optimize the training and to avoid injury. It can take several months for the training to be effective, but the results will last provided the training continues to be performed regularly.

Other treatment methods for osteoarthritis in the back and neck

The discomfort can sometimes be relieved using a spinal corset. Historically this was very popular and was essentially seen as standard treatment. The recommendation now is only to use it if needed, since it can provide effective relief but prevents the patient from using their own muscles which weakens them. A neck corset should only be used in specific cases and is not recommended as a standard treatment. The reason is that it can quickly degrade the muscle function in the cervical spine.

Unlike osteoarthritis in the hips or knee joints, it is not possible to treat osteoarthritis in the back very well with an operation if the back and neck problems are considerable. This is because the cause of the symptoms is rarely osteoarthritis alone. In fact, it is often a combination of osteoarthritis, disc disease and muscular problems. So there is a risk that the problem will spread above and below the area operated on. It is not possible to operate on the entire spine either, because this can cause significant physical impairment. Therefore, training is the only really good option to treat osteoarthritis in the spine without risk.

Continue reading about osteoarthritis in the shoulder.