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Spinal osteoarthritis (degenerative arthritis of the spine)

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition in which the protective cartilage that cushions the tops of bones wears down causing stiffness and pain.

Osteoarthritis usually affects over 50s and is more common in women.

The neck and the lower back are most likely to be affected by spinal osteoarthritis.

Sometimes, the wear and tear of osteoarthritis puts pressure on the nerves extending from the spinal column. This can cause weakness and pain in the arms or legs. Osteoarthritis may also cause bone spurs to form in the spinal area. 

Osteoarthritis of the spine is sometimes called spinal spondylosis if the damage affects the facet joint and the discs in the spine.

Who gets osteoarthritis of the spine?

In general, osteoarthritis happens as people age. However younger people may get it due to one of several different causes:

  • Injury or trauma to a joint
  • A genetic defect involving cartilage
  • A condition that makes the joint lose its proper formation 

For people under 45 years old, osteoarthritis is more common among men. After the age of 45, osteoarthritis is more common among women. The disease is more widespread among people who are overweight. It also occurs more frequently in people whose jobs or hobbies put repetitive stress on certain joints.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine?

Osteoarthritis of the spine may cause stiffness or pain in the neck or back, which can radiate to other parts of the body. It may also cause weakness or numbness in the legs or arms. Usually, the back discomfort is relieved when the person is lying down.

Some people experience little interference with their daily activities. Others become more severely disabled.

In addition to its physical effects, osteoarthritis may also lead to social and emotional problems. For instance, a person with osteoarthritis that hinders daily activities and job performance may feel depressed or helpless.

How is osteoarthritis of the spine diagnosed?

There is no single test to confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. Your GP will take a medical history and will perform a physical examination to see if you have pain or tenderness. Doctors will also look for any signs of injury to surrounding tissues, including ligaments, muscles or tendons. At this point, your GP may be able to tell if the muscle near the joint shows any signs of atrophy, or weakness, resulting from lack of use.

Your GP may arrange certain tests to aid in the diagnosis of osteoarthritis of the spine. These tests include:

  • X-rays to look for bone damage, bone spurs, and loss of cartilage. However, X-rays are not able to show early damage to cartilage.
  • Blood tests, mainly to look for rheumatoid arthritis, but also to exclude other diseases.
  • Joint aspiration to remove synovial fluid for analysis. Synovial fluid is a lubricant that collects in the lining of the joint, which is called the synovium.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show possible damage to the muscles and soft tissues, as well as any disc problems.

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