Most people suffer from an aching neck or back at some point in their lives. When pain and stiffness occur gradually and chronically, osteoarthritis may be the cause. Osteoarthritis of the spine is common with aging. It involves two primary processes:
- A breakdown of the cartilage in the facet joints, which link together the spine’s vertebrae
- Abnormal bony growths, called osteophytes or bone spurs, develop on the vertebrae
This degenerative process can lead to pain, stiffness, and other symptoms. The osteoarthritic process usually occurs slowly, over a number of years, and may develop in tandem with other degenerative issues in the spine, such as degenerative disc disease and/or spinal stenosis.
Pain is the primary symptom of spinal arthritis, although it may be experienced in any combination of the following ways:
- Back or neck pain that comes and goes, possibly with a chronic low level of pain punctuated by intermittent flare-ups of more intense pain
- Pain with certain activities, such as arching, twisting, or heavy lifting
- Back pain and stiffness that is worse after prolonged inactivity, such as upon getting out of bed in the morning
- Referred pain, such as headaches caused by osteoarthritis in the neck or leg pain caused by osteoarthritis in the lower back
Arthritis symptoms such as back pain and stiffness tend to progress gradually. Many people initially attribute these symptoms to lack of exercise or getting older. Others may dismiss early arthritis symptoms as muscle pain until the pain worsens and interrupts their enjoyment of everyday activities.
Back pain. Arthritis-related back pain depends on many variables, including how much joint degeneration has occurred and where it has developed on the spine:
- People with arthritis in the lumbar spine (lower back) often have pain in the lower back as well as the buttocks, groin, and back of the thigh.
- People with arthritis in the cervical spine (neck) often have pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper and middle back, and may experience frequent headaches.
- The pain is often experienced as dull and aching, though there may be bouts of intense pain. Pain may be worse with certain activities, such as twisting, deep arching, heavy lifting, or high-intensity activities such as jogging. Often lying down can relieve back pain.
Back stiffness. Bone friction and swelling in the facet joints may make the spine stiff and less flexible, particularly after sleeping or sitting for a long period of time. Some people notice it is difficult to maintain good posture.
Tingling, numbness, or weakness in limbs. Osteoarthritis can stimulate muscle spasms, the growth of bone spurs, or other degenerative changes that cause the spinal cord or its nerve roots to become compressed. When the spinal cord or a nerve root is squeezed, the entire area it travels to can be affected.
- Lumbar spinal stenosis occurs when a nerve root in the lower back is compressed. A person may experience tingling, weakness, or numbness that radiates from the low back into the buttocks, thighs, or groin. These symptoms are often referred to as sciatica, which describe symptoms that travel along the sciatic nerve in the back of the leg.
- Cervical spinal stenosis occurs when a nerve root in the neck is compressed. A person may experience tingling, weakness, or numbness that radiates to the arm or hand.
- Cervical spinal stenosis with myelopathy occurs when bone spurs grow inside the cervical spinal column, the space through which the spinal cord travels, and impinge on the spinal cord. This serious condition is most common in elderly patients. (Stenosis with myelopathy is less common with lumbar osteoarthritis because the spinal cord ends at about the L1/L2 vertebrae. Most of the spinal column in the low back contains only nerve roots.)
Osteoarthritis of the spine is a degenerative disease. It cannot be reversed, but treatment can slow down its progression, help control pain, and restore some or all of normal function.
There is a wide range of treatment options, from self-care and home remedies to spine surgery. Patients may respond to one or a combination of treatments for a time, then find they need to try something else. Finding the most effective therapy of osteoarthritis symptoms is often a process of trial and error.
People with osteoarthritis of the spine may seek treatment from doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists or massage therapists. These health practitioners may recommend medical and alternative approaches to treating osteoarthritic back pain such as the ones described below:
Manipulation. A chiropractor, an osteopathic physician, or a properly trained and licensed physical therapist can perform adjustments on the spine that may help properly align the spine and possibly reduce pain.
Massage. Therapeutic massage can help reduce osteoarthritis pain, improve circulation, and reduce muscle tension and spasms. It is preferable to find a professional who is specifically trained in treating people with arthritis.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). This type of non-invasive therapy uses small amounts of electricity to reduce sensitivity of nerves around the spine. Patients typically feel only a gentle vibration or tingling during TENS treatment. Not all patients receive pain relief. TENS therapy may be done in a medical office or the TENS unit may be prescribed to the patient and taken home with instructions regarding its proper use.
Are you suffering from Osteoarthritis pain and want to try one or more of the alternative treatments listed above? Call our office today at (304) 263-4927 to schedule an appointment. Dr Terry Chambers is a Board certified chiropractor and acupuncturist licensed in WV.