What is Osteoarthritis?

What is Osteoarthritis?
X-ray image showing osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine

Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that provides padding between bones wears down over time and the bones rub against each other, causing pain. It is one of the most common musculoskeletal problems. Osteoarthritis can affect the joints in the spine or the area where the spine joins the hips (sacroiliac joints). Arthritis can develop at any point in the spine but is most common in the neck and lower back.

What Causes Osteoarthritis of the Spine?


Spinal osteoarthritis is most often diagnosed in older individuals after years of general wear and tear on the joints. Being obese or overweight can also cause osteoarthritis due to the increased stress on the joints. People who had a prior injury to the joints, ligaments, or cartilage in the spine are at increased risk of developing spinal osteoarthritis later on.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Spine?


Pain and stiffness

People with spinal osteoarthritis may feel pain when moving, stiffness when awakening or after being sedentary for a while, and pain when pressure is applied to an affected joint. There may also be some swelling around arthritic joints. Because there is less protective padding in an arthritic joint, some people feel a "grating" sensation as the unpadded components of the joint rub against each other. You may feel discomfort during everyday activities such as getting dressed, doing housework, grocery shopping, or bending over.

Loss of flexibility

Inflammation of the tissues around an arthritic joint may reduce your range of motion. You may find it more difficult to straighten your back or turn your head fully without feeling pain or stiffness.

Bone spurs

Bone spurs ("osteophytes") are extra bits of bone that can form around arthritic joints. In the spine, they may arise as overgrowths on the edges of the vertebrae. Bone spurs may cause pain when they narrow the passages through which the spinal cord and spinal nerves pass. This pain may be limited to the area around the joint, or you may experience pain or weakness radiating into your arms (in the case of cervical osteoarthritis) or legs (in people with lumbar arthritis).

Who Is at Risk for Spinal Osteoarthritis?


Older individuals, people whose jobs induce repetitive stress from heavy lifting that taxes the spine, athletes in certain sports, and those who have had prior injuries to the spine are most at risk for spinal osteoarthritis. Women are also more prone to osteoarthritis than men.

What Are the Other Types of Spinal Arthritis?


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of spinal arthritis. Another type of arthritis in the spine is called inflammatory arthritis. Unlike osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis is generally associated with a disease or condition that affects other parts of the body, such as:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis, a type of autoimmune disease (where a person's immune cells attack their own tissues) that can affect multiple joints.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis, which causes inflammation between the vertebrae and in the joints between the spine and pelvis.
  • Psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder causing pain in the joints as well as inflammation of the skin.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, another autoimmune disorder (including Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis), which causes "enteropathic arthritis" in some individuals.
  • Reactive arthritis, a form of arthritis that develops when there is infection elsewhere in the body.
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a form of inflammatory arthritis that develops in children.
  • Undifferentiated spondyloarthritis, the diagnosis made when there is inflammatory arthritis that does not have features of any known type.

These types of spinal arthritis are treated by rheumatologists. Learn more about rheumatology at NewYork-Presbyterian.

What Happens if Spinal Osteoarthritis Is Left Untreated?

If Left Untreated

In many people, spinal osteoarthritis is mild and does not interfere significantly with their daily lives. No treatment may be needed. But if the pain or other symptoms become severe enough to limit your ability to work or participate in other activities you enjoy, it may be a sign that treatment is required.

Left untreated, spinal osteoarthritis can progress to a point where it causes spinal stenosis: narrowing in the spine that can compress the spinal cord or spinal nerves. This condition may require more intensive treatment and sometimes even surgery.

It's always best to see a spine doctor early whenever you have pain or stiffness that is not getting better or may be getting worse. You should seek medical attention right away if you experience:

  • Numbness, weakness, or tingling, including discomfort that travels down into your buttocks, hips, and legs
  • Difficulty walking or balancing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
Get Care

Find Treatment for Osteoarthritis of the Spine at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian

We understand how the pain of spinal osteoarthritis in your neck or lower back can keep you from doing the things you want to do. The trained spine specialists at Och Spine are here to help. Our experts will carefully evaluate your symptoms and determine the cause of your discomfort. We'll devise a personalized plan of care to help you start feeling better soon. Call us to schedule an appointment.