Arthritis can affect any joint in the body. Experts say that 90% of US adults experience some form of arthritis. With its many joints and its central role in supporting the body, the spine is a common area for osteoarthritis.

What is osteoarthritis?

This is the most common type of arthritis. It affects weight-bearing joints throughout the body, especially in the knees, hands, feet, hips, and back. Our joints are covered in a cushioning material called cartilage that also allows them to move smoothly against one another. With age, this tissue can become worn. Wearing can also be exacerbated by repetitive motion and work or hobbies that put excessive stress on the joints. This wearing means that joints do not have as much cushioning and bone is rubbing directly on bone. The result is painful arthritis.

Do other types of arthritis affect the spine?

While there are over 100 types of arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common and affects the most people. However, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may also be responsible for arthritis in the spine. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease rather than a degenerative one. RA can affect any joint in the body but is often felt in the hands, hips, elbows, and knees. It is typically symmetrical and will affect both sides of the body at once.

While less common, there is a third type of arthritis that can affect the spine. Ankylosing spondylosis is an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammatory arthritis. It mainly affects the pelvis and spine. Over time, it can cause fusion of the vertebrae.

How arthritis affects the spine

Because of their role in support and mobility, the joints in the spine are particularly vulnerable to arthritis. On the rear side of each vertebra are facet joints which hold the spine together. Facet joints make movements like bending, stretching and twisting possible. These joints are also the ones in the spine that are most likely to develop osteoarthritis.

Someone who is diagnosed with arthritis of the spine is most likely experiencing cartilage breakdown in those joints. The pain can be mild to severe. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease and gets more severe over time.

Complications of arthritis of the spine

In many cases, spinal osteoarthritis is associated with degenerative disc disease. In this disease, the discs between the vertebrae gradually break down. Many symptoms of osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease overlap, so it is important to get a proper diagnosis.

People who have arthritis in their facet joints are also prone to bone spurs. When bone rubs against bone, this causes stress within the structure. The bone will attempt to repair itself; however, the architecture of the new bone may be different from the original bone structure. Bone spurs, which are small, irregular bone growths, can form in the affected areas.

These bone spurs can compress or irritate nerves at the spots where they leave the spine. This can cause numbness, weakness and transferred pain.

The spinal column can also narrow over time, which is known as spinal stenosis. This condition also puts pressure on spinal nerves, leading to the symptoms described above.

Coping with Arthritis in the Spine

While there is no cure for arthritis, lifestyle changes and ongoing treatment can help. We can work with you to positively identify the cause of your back pain. If we identify it as arthritis, we will work on an arthritis treatment plan to slow the progression of spinal cartilage degeneration and help you find pain relief.