Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis that affects the back. It can occur anywhere along the spine. Usually, the low back and sometimes the neck is affected.
If the neck is affected then it is usually called cervical spondylosis. Spondylosis means ‘arthritis in the spine’ and cervical is the medical term for the neck.
In Osteoarthritis, the cartilage that pads the ends of the bones wears down. Spinal Osteoarthritis can occur in the facet joints which are the small joints located between and behind vertebras.
When you move, the bones rub together painfully. Bony growths (called spurs) form in the joints. These spurs can press on nerves, causing more pain. The discs between the vertebrae in the spine can also become thinner.
The last MRI of my spine showed that I had degenerative changes to my thoracic spine and disc osteophyte complex in my cervical spine which in broad terms means I have osteoarthritis in my cervical and thoracic spine with multiple bony spurs. This can mean that your back or neck doesn’t move as smoothly as it used to, and it might feel stiff or sore.
The spine is sometimes called the vertebral column or spinal column. Its purpose is to protect your spinal cord, carry the weight of your body and help you move around. The spine is split into five sections – cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum and coccyx.
Osteoarthritis can affect anyone at any age, but it’s more common in women and people over 50. People who are overweight are also more likely to have Osteoarthritis. Repeated joint stress from work or sports can increase your risk. Plus a back injury or multiple spinal surgeries can lead to osteoarthritis. The genes people inherit from their parents can also affect the risk of osteoarthritis developing.
One of the first signs of osteoarthritis of the spine is usually pain and stiffness in your back or neck. Turning your neck or straightening your back may be hard. However, the low back is the most common site of pain. Another sign is stiffness, especially first thing in the morning or after having a rest. You may have a feeling of grinding when moving and tenderness and swelling.
If it is your neck that is affected by osteoarthritis then you may also feel pain down your arms and shoulders. All of the above apply to me.
Some people find the pain wakes them in the night. You’ll probably find that you have a mixture of good and bad days and that the amount of pain you have changes.
If you are overweight then obviously losing some would help. They also suggest physical therapy to improve your muscle strength and ability to move your spine. I am seeing a physiotherapist who is helping me build up my muscle strength. She also gives me acupuncture which is another type of treatment they suggest you try. Anti-inflammatory drugs seem to be the most common drug given as well as pain killers and steroid injections. I have all these and find the injections give me the best pain relief but you are only allowed a limited amount of these in one year.
Spinal stenosis is another condition that happens when the spinal canal, which contains the spinal cord, gets narrower. The most common symptoms are pain and weakness or numbness in the area linked to the affected part of the spine – such as the legs, arms, neck, back or shoulders. Spinal stenosis is often caused by osteoarthritis, as the bony spurs that form on the edge of the vertebrae can irritate the nerves in your spine.
Treatment for spinal stenosis is the same as you are given for osteoarthritis.
They say the most important thing is to keep yourself moving. Exercise will also help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, which will reduce strain on your spine and your legs. About 20 minutes a day can make a big difference to the pain in osteoarthritis and even a 20-minute walk will help.
Whatever you decide to do to help your pain always remember to check with your GP first or see a physiotherapist who can give you a specific program to follow.