Spinal Arthritis: Symptoms

Spinal arthritis, which is also known as spinal osteoarthritis or spondylosis, produces varying degrees of inflammation, stiffness, and pain in your spinal joints. Symptoms largely depend on where the arthritis is in your spine—a person with cervical (neck) spondylosis will experience different symptoms than someone with lumbar (low back) spondylosis.
Man holding his lower backGenerally, the signs and symptoms of arthritis include inflammation, stiffness, and pain in the joints. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

General Signs and Symptoms of Spinal Osteoarthritis

Regardless of the location, people with spondylosis often have 1 or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Spinal pain that comes and goes
  • Spinal stiffness first thing in the morning (after getting out of bed)
  • A crunching feeling or sound of bone rubbing on bone
  • Spinal deformity (such as a humpback, or abnormal kyphosis)

Symptoms of Cervical (Neck) Spinal Arthritis

  • Pain, tenderness, tingling, or numbness in your neck or shoulders
  • Pain that radiates from your neck down into your shoulders, arms, and/or hands
  • Limited range of motion in your neck
  • Cervicogenic headache
  • Problems maintaining balance
  • Difficulty swallowing (this is an especially serious symptom, as it may indicate myelopathy, which is spinal cord compression)

Symptoms of Thoracic (Mid-back) Spinal Arthritis

  • Pain localized in your thoracic spine (mid-back)
  • Pain that spikes when you bend forward (flexion) and/or backward (extension) your back

Symptoms of Lumbar (Low Back) Spinal Arthritis

  • Pain, weakness, or numbness in your low back, legs, and/or feet
  • Limited range of motion in your low back
  • Back pain that eases with rest or after exercising
  • Severe leg pain (eg, sciatica)
  • Pain or tenderness in your hips, knees, or heels
  • Difficulty bending and/or walking
  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder function (this is an especially serious symptom, as it may indicate cauda equina syndrome)

Have Spondylosis Symptoms? See Your Doctor About a Diagnosis

If your back pain is severe, it is a good idea to visit your doctor to diagnose your arthritis pain. He or she will ask you about the history of your pain. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the following:

  • When the pain started
  • When or what makes your pain feel better or worse
  • How long pain lasts
  • What you have done to relieve the pain
  • Health problems you are experiencing or have had in the past (eg, diabetes)

Your doctor will then perform a physical exam focusing on your back. You may be asked to do a few simple movements or exercises, so your doctor can see if your range of motion has been affected. These exercises may include bending forward, side-to-side, or backwards. You may also be asked to lie down and raise your legs. Be sure to tell your doctor when or if any of these exercises causes or worsens pain.

The symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis are similar to other spinal conditions. Therefore, it is important for your doctor to rule out other, possibly more serious problems. To do this, you may need to undergo a variety of tests.

  • Blood tests: These will help determine the type of arthritis (eg, rheumatoid arthritis).
  • X-rays: These tests can show the structure of the vertebrae and the outlines of joints and can help determine if there has been any deterioration of cartilage.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test gives a 3-dimensional view of parts of the back and can show the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding spaces.
  • CT scan: This test shows the shape and size of the spinal canal, its contents, and structures surrounding it. It shows bone better than nerve tissue.
  • Bone scan: Before the scan, a radiographic contrast is injected through an intravenous line (IV). The contrast attaches itself to bone. A bone scan can detect arthritis but may not be able to differentiate it from other disorders. Therefore, bone scans are usually performed along with other tests.
  • Myelogram: A liquid contrast material (dye) is injected into the spinal column to illuminate the spinal canal, cord, and nerve roots. Other anatomical structures are also highlighted such as vertebrae and discs. A myelogram can show where the spinal cord and/or nerve roots are compressed and if that pressure is caused by different spinal disorders such as herniated discs, bone spurs (osteophytes) or tumors.

Treatments Ease Painful Spinal Arthritis Symptoms

If your doctor determines that you have spondylosis in your spine, there are several treatment options. Keep in mind, there is no cure for spinal osteoarthritis, but you can manage the pain and discomfort using medications, physical therapy, exercise, heat/cold therapy, and rest. Your doctor will explain these options to you, and together, you can develop a treatment plan that works for you.

The good news is that the majority of people who have spondylosis continue to live active and productive lives. Educating yourself about arthritis and managing your symptoms are the keys to preventing spinal osteoarthritis from interfering with the life you want to live.

Updated on: 03/18/20
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Arthritis: Medications to Relieve Pain

Medications and prescription drugs may help relieve arthritis pain in your neck and/or back. Learn about options to treat painful osteoarthritis or spondylosis, other names for spinal arthritis.
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