Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Do you end up massaging a dull twinge in your lower back the moment you roll out of your bed? Do you feel as if your back locks up when you rotate your torso to pick something up? Have you stopped going to the gym because of a sharp, nagging pain in your back? There's a good explanation of why you're experiencing all these changes in your body. You have osteoarthritis (OA) of the spine. Keep reading to learn more about the basic symptoms of this condition and to know your treatment options.

What Is Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

Also called degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is a condition in which the protective cartilage in your bones wears down due to excessive use. This will lead to swelling and pain in the affected joint. If left untreated, it may also develop into osteophytes or bone spurs. These bone spurs will put pressure on the nerves in your spinal cord that will cause pain and weakness in the legs and arms.

What Are the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

Symptoms of spine osteoarthritis will vary from person to person. For some, the symptoms may be quite mild, but others may find them disabling. Some people don't have any symptoms in the beginning even though they have the OA of the spine, and the progression is usually quite slow in this case.

Aching and stiffness in the joint after sitting a long time, after vigorous activity, or on waking in the morning are usually the early symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine. This stiffness may cause a change in your posture that others will notice immediately. Some people shift to the side, while others will bend forward due to stiffness and pain.

With the progression of the condition, your symptoms will become more constant and severe. They may even interfere with your daily activity. Some of those symptoms include pain in the neck and back, burning sensation that spreads to the arm, the shoulder or the buttocks, and stiffness after prolonged activity. Your pain will become worse when you stay inactive for extended hours – it's more noticeable when you wake up in the morning.

You may also experience more pain when standing and get better with lying down. However, your symptoms won't improve with rest when your condition becomes rather serious. This will also make it difficult for you to perform normal daily activities, such as bathing, dressing and even walking.

Who Are at Risk of Osteoarthritis of the Spine?

Experts have found some people are more susceptible to osteoarthritis. In most cases, a number of factors work together to cause this condition. Repetitive strains on your spine caused by surgery, accidents, poor posture, sports injuries and work-related activities are some of the most common causes.

If your job requires repetitive and heavy motion, you are more likely to develop osteoarthritis at some point in life. Here are some other risk factors:

  • Aging: As you grow old, spinal structures in your spine wear as well.
  • Gender: It is more common in women, especially in post-menopausal women. However, it also affects men and women under the age 45.
  • Obesity: If you're overweight, it's obvious that you're putting more stress on your weight-bearing joints. This will wear down your spine and cause osteoarthritis.
  • Genetics: You may develop this condition if you have a family history of osteoarthritis or congenital defects of spine, joins or leg.
  • Associated diseases: Several other conditions, diseases and infections can cause spine osteoarthritis. People who have diabetes or those with rheumatoid arthritis may also develop it.

How to Diagnose Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Early diagnosis is important and helps manage the situation better. Unfortunately, there is no single test for proper diagnosis, but your doctor will consider medical history and conduct a physical exam to see if you have tenderness or pain. There may also be some signs of injury to the surrounding tissues, including muscles, ligaments and tendons. Your doctor will look for these signs to draw a conclusion.

In some cases, your doctor will order certain tests to confirm if you are suffering from osteoarthritis of the spine. For instance:

  • They will order x-rays to check for bone spurs, bone damage and loss of cartilage. X-rays aren't that useful in finding any damage to cartilage.
  • They may order blood tests to find any signs of rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.
  • They may also take out synovial fluid for analysis. The fluid works as a lubricant and is in the lining of the joint.
  • They may suggest getting an MRI scan done to ensure there is no damage to the soft tissues and muscles. This will also help diagnose any disc problems.

How to Deal With Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Once you have been diagnosed with this problem, you will have to make certain changes to your lifestyle and even take certain medications to slow the progression of the disease. Here are some of the commonly used treatment options to deal with osteoarthritis of the spine.

1.  Medication

You can take OTC pain relievers such as paracetamol to reduce pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, may also help reduce swelling and pain. Topical ointment and creams also prove beneficial. Your doctor may also prescribe analgesics, such as mild opiates with oral steroids and injections of corticosteroids for pain management.

2.  Exercises

Even though it is difficult to continue with your gym routine, inactivity will make situation worse. Exercise helps reduce your weight, increase flexibility, strengthen your heart, improve blood flow, and make it easier to perform your daily activities. However, you cannot perform all types of movement when diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the spine. Walking, swimming and water aerobics will work well. Choose exercises with keeping the following categories in mind:

  • Strengthening exercises: Doing these exercises will strengthen the muscles that provide support to your joints.
  • Aerobic exercises: Doing these exercises will improve your circulatory system and help manage your body weight to reduce stress on your spine.
  • Range-of-movement exercises: Doing these exercises will improve your body's flexibility and prevent muscle weakness.

3.  Other Home Care Measures

Beside taking exercises as discussed above, you can also:

  • Ask someone to massage your spine and surrounding muscles for strength and pain relief.
  • Use cold or heat compresses to reduce swelling in the affected joint.
  • Take some nutritional supplements to provide your body with all-important nutrients.

4.  Surgery

Although a combination of physical therapy, medication and exercises will help make your symptoms more manageable, you may have to go for a surgery in some cases. You may require surgery if you've developed spinal stenosis due to spinal osteoarthritis. Surgery is also an option when your condition affects bowel and bladder function. 

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