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.

Below is a list of common signs and symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis.

    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.
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    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.)

    See How Osteoarthritis Can Lead to Spinal Stenosis

    Inactivity makes it worse. Lying down can relieve pain and pressure on the spine, but prolonged rest can cause the spine to become stiff. People with facet joint osteoarthritis often find stiffness and pain are most noticeable when they try to get out of bed in the morning or out of a chair after a long period of sitting. Therefore, patients must find the right balance between activity and rest.

    Back popping or crunching. Feeling a crunching or hearing a popping sound when bending or arching the back are signs that cartilage may have worn away and is not protecting the facet joints from friction. The medical term for this symptom is "crepitus."

    Hunched or slouched appearance. Osteoarthritis of the spine and bad posture often go hand in hand. Bad posture causes the spine to curve more than normal, which puts more stress on facet joints and encourages the development of osteoarthritis.

    Alternatively, osteoarthritis can set into motion a cascade of physical changes that cause the curves of the spine to become more pronounced, making a person appear hunched or slouched.

    Swelling. When the cartilage of the facet joints wears away, the bones can rub together, resulting in irritation and swelling. This swelling can be mild and go undetected by patients.

    Tenderness. The affected area may be tender to the touch.

In most but not all cases, the symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis come and go, becoming worse and more frequent over months or years. Early recognition of symptoms and appropriate treatment can dramatically slow or eliminate progression of osteoarthritis symptoms.

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