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Spinal arthritis symptoms can be difficult to diagnose, as they are similar to the symptoms associated with a number of other spinal conditions. It is important for individuals experiencing any type of back or neck pain to carefully document symptoms, particularly the severity, frequency, and locations where they arise. Having a deeper understanding of the condition may help patients to better identify and discuss spinal arthritis symptoms with a doctor or spine specialist.
How Spinal Arthritis Can Develop
“Spinal arthritis” is a term that’s commonly used interchangeably with “spinal osteoarthritis” and “spondylosis.” With more than 100 known types of arthritis, osteoarthritis remains the most frequently diagnosed form. Spinal arthritis usually develops simply as a product of the aging process and affects the facet joints of the spine. Each vertebra has two facet joints, one on the left side and one on the right. The facet joints serve as the connection point and hinging mechanism for the vertebrae above and below, which gives the spinal column its highly flexible characteristics. Each facet joint is coated with smooth cartilage and a lubricating synovial membrane that allow the joints to slide smoothly against each other.
Over time, the cartilage can begin to dehydrate and wear away and the synovial membrane can become damaged, which can lead to bone-on-bone friction. Once friction occurs, the medial branch nerves that feed into the facet joints can become irritated and cause symptoms of pain, inflammation, tenderness, and joint stiffness. Additionally, osteophytes, or bone spurs, may also develop once joint cartilage has worn away. If one or more of these bony nodules comes in contact with or compresses the spinal cord or a nerve root, additional symptoms of pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling may radiate into the upper or lower extremities, depending on the location of the compression.
Patients who believe they are experiencing spinal arthritis symptoms may exhibit:
• Pain and joint stiffness, particularly in the morning, in the evening, or in the middle of the night
• Swollen joints that feel warm to the touch and appear red, especially during changes in the weather
• Tenderness at and around the affected joint
• Reduced joint flexibility and limited range of motion
• Intermittent or constant pain that usually presents as an ache
• Audible grinding or a bone-on-bone crunching feeling when the joint moves, known as crepitus
Individuals who recognize these symptoms should talk with a doctor to ascertain a spinal arthritis diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan that best fits their needs.
If a doctor has identified a patient’s discomfort as spinal arthritis symptoms, he or she may initially recommend a course of conservative treatments to help alleviate pain. Over-the-counter or prescription strength non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be suggested. Naproxen and ibuprofen are variants of this type of medication and can help to reduce inflammation affecting joints, as well as relieve pain. A doctor may also recommend sessions with a physical therapist, who can teach a patient proper posture techniques when standing, sitting, and even sleeping, as well as gentle exercises and stretching techniques to ease muscle tension, expand narrowed spaces in the spinal column, promote blood flow, and strengthen core muscles. Conservative treatments like these generally are able to alleviate symptoms after several weeks or months of treatment. Surgery is rarely required.
Patrick Foote is the Director of eBusiness at Laser Spine Institute, the leader in endoscopic spine surgery. Laser Spine Institute specializes in safe and effective outpatient procedures for spinal arthritis and several other spinal conditions.