Osteoarthritis often shows up in hips, knees, and fingers, but it can also affect your spine. In fact, osteoarthritis commonly affects the vertebral facet joints in the lower back.

Spinal osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that occurs when the cartilage cushioning the facet joints in the lumbar spine break down. See What Is Spinal Osteoarthritis (Facet Joint Arthritis)?

How does spinal arthritis cause pain?

When a vertebral facet joint moves, healthy cartilage ensures the facets glide against one another. Spinal osteoarthritis begins with facet cartilage degeneration. This cartilage degeneration doesn’t necessarily cause back pain, but it can lead to joint changes that cause pain:

  • When facet cartilage is damaged or missing, the vertebral facets rub or grate against one another, resulting in excess friction and more joint damage.
  • The joint damage and friction lead to inflammation, which may cause pain and stiffness.
  • Pain signals travel through the affected facet joint.
  • These signals can cause the back muscles to go into spasm.
  • The combination of facet joint inflammation and muscle spasm can cause pain and stiffness.

See How Arthritis Causes Back Pain

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Most cases of spinal osteoarthritis develop gradually. Pain can range from dull to severe and is often accompanied by stiffness.

Spinal arthritis in the low back. If you have osteoarthritis in your low back, you may first notice achy low back pain after exercising or doing physical work. You may also feel pain in areas surrounding your groin, buttocks, or back of your thighs.

Spinal arthritis in the neck. If you have osteoarthritis in your neck, you may notice pain and stiffness in the neck. Pain may also be felt in the shoulders, and upper and middle back. You may experience frequent headaches.

See Spinal Osteoarthritis Symptoms

What can you do if you have spinal osteoarthritis?

There are plenty of treatments for spinal arthritis. One of the best and most underutilized treatments for spinal osteoarthritis is doing back-strengthening exercises. Other treatments you can try on your own include using a warming pad or ice pack (alternatively or on their own), using a topical pain reliever, losing excess weight, and taking a break from activities that aggravate pain.

See Spinal Osteoarthritis Treatment

Spinal osteoarthritis pain is fairly common and can be treated, especially in its early stages. If you experience nerve pain, such as shooting pain or numbness, see your doctor.

See Spinal Osteoarthritis Diagnosis

Learn more:

How Osteoarthritis Can Lead to Spinal Stenosis

Understanding Joint Pain