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.

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Back and Neck Pain from Osteoarthritis

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

This article provides an in-depth review of the symptoms, causes and risk factors, diagnostic process, and surgical and nonsurgical treatments for osteoarthritis of the spine.

Osteoarthritis of the Spine: Many Names, One Disease

    Osteoarthritis that develops in the spine can go by many different names, including:

  • Zygapophyseal joint arthritis or Z joint arthritis
  • Facet joint arthritis
  • Facet joint syndrome

It may also be referred to by terms that describe general degenerative changes in the spine, such as:

  • Facet arthropathy, which refers to any disease of the facets, most commonly osteoarthritis
  • Spondylosis, a general term that refers to any spine pain caused by degeneration, including but not limited to osteoarthritis

Regardless of the term used, spinal osteoarthritis is common in older adults. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 60% of people over the age of 40 have some joint degeneration in the lower back, though it does not always cause pain.1

  • For information on spine related conditions, see the Arthritis Center on Spine-health.com

References

  1. Kalichman L, Li L, Kim DH, Guermazi A, Berkin V, O'Donnell CJ, Hoffmann U, Cole R, Hunter DJ. Facet joint osteoarthritis and low back pain in the community-based population. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2008 Nov 1;33(23):2560-5. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e318184ef95. PubMed PMID: 18923337; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3021980.
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