Advanced age, damage to one or more vertebral discs, and other factors may play a part in the development of osteoarthritis in the spine.
While most people with osteoarthritis have at least one of the risk factors described below, it is possible to have no risk factors and still develop spinal osteoarthritis. The reverse is also true—it is possible to have all of these risk factors and never develop spinal osteoarthritis.
- Degenerative changes in cartilage
- The cumulative effects of wear-and-tear on joints
- Excess inflammation that can occur throughout the body (systemic inflammation) as well as in the joints (localized inflammation)3
All of these factors can contribute to the development of spinal osteoarthritis.
Degeneration of a vertebral disc
A vertebral disc serves as a cushion between two vertebrae. When a disc degenerates, it loses hydration and becomes smaller, leading to a reduction in space between the two adjoining vertebrae. This change can put excess pressure on the vertebrae’s facet joints, causing their cartilage to wear away, resulting in osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis can also lead to disc degeneration, causing a vicious cycle.
Read more about Facet Joint Osteoarthritis on Spine-health.com
Like osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease is most likely to occur in the neck and low back, because these are the areas of the spine that undergo the most motion and stress.
People who are obese are 5 times more likely to develop osteoarthritis in the lower back.
Facet joints are weight-bearing joints, and excess weight puts extra strain on these joints. In addition, obesity is associated with low-grade, systemic (body-wide) inflammation, which may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.5-7 (Obesity is defined as a BMI ≥ 30.)
Scoliosis or poor alignment of the spine changes the biomechanics of the vertebra’s facet joints. During movement, these joints experience more stress and friction, increasing the risk of developing osteoarthritis of the spine.
Past injuries and trauma
A broken vertebra, serious back injury, or back surgery may cause joint damage that eventually leads to spinal osteoarthritis, although symptoms may not appear until many years later.
Chronic joint stress
When daily activities put a recurring strain on the neck or back, the facet joints can experience mini-traumas, increasing the risk of developing spinal osteoarthritis. For example, people who participate in high impact sports may be more prone to developing spinal osteoarthritis.8
Women are more likely than men to develop osteoarthritis in the lumbar spine. This difference is particularly noticeable after age 50.9 Evidence suggests that the drop in women’s estrogen levels during menopause may have a negative effect on the health of women’s facet joints.10
Similar to height and hair color, the likelihood of a person developing spinal osteoarthritis may be influenced by genetics.11,12 (This is also true for other types of osteoarthritis, such as hand, knee, and hip osteoarthritis.)
Specific genes may increase the likelihood of cartilage breaking down at a younger age. Genes also influence joint structure, and an abnormal joint structure can increase the risk of osteoarthritis.13
Research regarding how risk factors influence the development of spine osteoarthritis is ongoing. A physician can diagnose the underlying cause of back pain.
Read more about Osteoarthritis Diagnosis