What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common joint disorders, and is caused primarily by the normal wear and tear joints endure throughout life. Every joint in the body, including the spinal vertebrae, is cushioned and lubricated by cartilage that gradually wears away. As this cartilage degrades, bones begin to rub against one another. This can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and even the weakening of neighboring muscles and ligaments.

It is usually difficult to pinpoint a specific cause of osteoarthritis, but several risk factors may lead to its development. Aging is the most common culprit, and most people will experience some symptoms by the age of 70. Lifestyle and genetics play a large role too, as the disorder runs in families and can become more or less severe depending on living choices. Being overweight can also inflame the disorder because of the extra pressure and weigh exerted upon the skeleton and joints.

Previous injuries to joints or soft tissue can lead to osteoarthritis during aging as well, as can certain motions required in some jobs and sports. Jobs that require a lot of kneeling, squatting, lifting and going up and down stairs increase the incidence of osteoarthritis too. Similarly, sports that contain a lot of direct impact, twisting motions, and throwing motions may lead to this disorder later in life. In addition, existing medical conditions that cause bleeding or affect blood flow, such as hemophilia and avascular necrosis, as well as other types of arthritis can lead to osteoarthritis. Currently, no cure exits, but many things can be done to mitigate the symptoms of this condition.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

There are a handful of symptoms that are very indicative of osteoarthritis, which generally become more pronounced over time and without treatment.

  • Pain in the joint during and after use is generally the most common and noticeable symptom.
  • Patients may experience tenderness in and around the joint when applying light pressure to it.
  • Stiffness in the joint is often reported, particularly first thing in the morning and after long periods of inactivity.
  • The flexibility of the joint may diminish, particularly compared to other joints or to previous times in life.
  • Because of the loss of cartilage, some patients experience a grating feeling in the joint during use.
  • In more severe cases, bone spurs may form around the joint, which can disrupt or compress nearby nerves and cause pain.

How Can Osteoarthritis Cause Back Pain?

In the spine, osteoarthritis causes a narrowing of the discs that act as cushions between each vertebra. The degeneration of these discs leads to pain, inflammation, and bone spurs as the vertebrae begin to rub together. In addition to problems associated with the intervertebral discs, the facet joints of each vertebra can be affected. Facet joints are responsible for extension, flexion, and rotation in the spine. Like all other joints, these are coated in cartilage that begins to wear over the lifespan.

The spine is divided into three major regions: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. Osteoarthritis can affect all three regions, and all of the 33 vertebras in the spine. In the cervical region, symptoms of osteoarthiris frequently include neck and upper back pain. Thoracic and lumbar region osteoarthritis can also cause pain throughout much of the body.

How is Osteoarthritis of the Spine Treated?

A variety of treatment options are available for osteoarthritis, and lifestyle changes can go a long way towards relieving pain and maintaining mobility. Staying active is important to maintain joint range-of-motion and muscle stimulation, and low-impact exercises like swimming are recommended. Activity also helps you lose weight, which puts less stress on the spine and relieves symptoms. Physical therapy can further help strengthen the back and abdominal muscles, as well as increase flexibility in the spine.

For patients who are unable to find relief through exercise or conservative treatments, minimally invasive endoscopic procedures may also relieve some side effects of osteoarthritis. No surgery can cure osteoarthritis itself, but it can often minimize the effects of bone spurs and other problems.

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis

Diagnosing osteoarthritis of the spine often includes a physical exam and range-of-motion test. Medical imaging, like X-rays and MRIs, are also often used to look for decreased disc height, bone spur formation, and irregularities of the discs or ligaments. If you are experiencing symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis, also sometimes spelled osteo arthritis, talk to your doctor to learn more about treatment options.

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