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A patient with spinal arthritis symptoms may experience stiffness, pain, tenderness, inflammation, and joint locking in the neck and/or back. Stiffness, in particular, may be worse after certain activities or after long periods of rest, but a patient’s stiffness is largely an issue upon waking up in the morning. An individual may experience the symptoms for up to 30 minutes before he or she begins to feel better and ready to tackle the rest of the day. But what causes the stiff feeling to occur? To answer this question, let’s first explore how spinal arthritis and its associated symptoms can develop.
The Development of Spinal Arthritis
The spinal column is formed by stacked bones called vertebrae. These bony structures connect together at points called the facet joints. These joints – along with intervertebral discs, muscles, and ligaments – facilitate the different types of movement that the spine is capable of, such as bending and twisting.
The spinal components also work together to properly support each other. For example, intervertebral discs are sandwiched between individual vertebrae to provide shock absorption, and they also are there to maintain appropriate spacing between vertebrae, which ensures functional facet joint movement and also ensures adequate room for nerve roots to pass through as they exit the spinal column. Strong, fibrous ligaments connect the vertebrae together and provide added support to the spine. Over time, however, the effects of aging can begin to have an impact on these components. Ligamentous tissues become lax and discs begin to dehydrate and shrink in height. These actions can compromise overall spine stability and force the facet joints to work harder to keep the spine mobile.
A protective layer of cartilage lines each facet joint, which is also lubricated by a capsule of synovial fluid. As part of the degenerative process that occurs with growing older, the cartilage can begin to deteriorate and wear away, revealing raw bone. As a result, the unprotected joint bones may grind together. Crepitus, or the audible popping or cracking noises and sensation of grating bone, can also occur. Spinal arthritis symptoms typically develop due to joint grinding and other abnormal movement within the vertebral segment.
The joint itself also can become inflamed, causing stiffness and swelling. Lying in bed for a period of time may seem like the best treatment for such symptoms, but inactivity can actually cause the facet joints to become stiffer and certain movements may be limited. However, sleeping about seven to eight hours a day is a necessity for health and should not be neglected. To combat stiffness from arthritis, a doctor-recommended low-impact exercise plan may be necessary to help keep joints moving and “warmed up.”
A doctor may also suggest other conservative, nonsurgical treatments to combat symptoms, such as the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), pain medications, physical therapy, facet joint injections, and others. Though mainstream medical doctors don’t endorse other treatments beyond conservative methods and surgery, some patients choose to explore alternative, holistic therapies to either complement or replace conservative methods. Popular alternative treatments might include gentle massage, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and others. It is advisable for a patient to consult both his or her doctor and a professional certified in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) before starting any alternative treatment regimen. Spinal arthritis surgery is typically recommended only if nonsurgical treatments fail to provide relief after several weeks or months.