Osteoarthritis of the spine, also called Facet Joint Arthritis, is common as we age. It’s often caused by:
A breakdown of the cartilage in the facet joints, which link together the spine’s vertebrae
Abnormal bony growths, called osteophytes or bone spurs, that grow 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 alongside other degenerative spine conditions such as degenerative disc disease and/or spinal stenosis.
While the exact cause of spinal arthritis is unknown, research shows may factors contribute to both its presence and severity, including age, gender, genetic predisposition, trauma, obesity, inflammation, and loss of cartilage in joints.
Spinal Arthritis Symptoms
With spinal arthritis, pain can be gradual or sudden and symptoms can vary among patients. There are, however, physical signs to pay attention to. Some of the most common ones include:
Spinal stiffness, particularly in the morning
Limited range of motion and difficulty walking or bending
Back pain that comes and goes
Lower back pain that radiates through the buttocks, thighs, or pelvic area
Muscle spasms in the neck or lower back
Spinal deformity (in rare cases)
Pain, tenderness and/or numbness in the neck, shoulders, hips or knees
Weakness or numbness in legs or arms
If you’ve been experiencing a combination of the symptoms described here for more than two weeks, or if your back pain is severe, you can consult with Dr. Fayaz for an evaluation.
How Spinal Arthritis is Diagnosed
Typically, our team will first discuss the history of your back pain, conduct a physical examination, and in most cases, order X-rays or other images to be taken. If you already have images of your spine from the past few months please bring them with you.
Patients will be asked to describe their symptoms, when they started, and how they have changed over time. The medical history will also include any other medical conditions you may have, current medications you take, lifestyle habits, and past treatments you may have had.
The physician will conduct a physical examination to assess the patient’s overall health, nerve function, reflexes, problematic joints, and musculoskeletal status. Muscle strength and flexibility, as well as the ability to carry out daily activities such as walking, bending, and reaching, will also be evaluated. To test range of motion and level of pain, the patient may also be asked to perform basic exercises.
Images of the spine
In order to assess joint damage and its extent, the doctor may request an X-ray. An X-ray is a useful tool that can give better insight as to what is causing the back pain. CT scans and MRIs are other types of images that may be used. The type chosen for each patient will depend on the symptoms that are described.
Treatment Options for Spinal Arthritis
For many patients, the first thing that comes to mind when they think about treatment for spinal arthritis is surgery. While surgery is a solution, it is not the only solution. In fact, many patients who suffer from this condition are able to find a lot of relief from non-surgical treatments.
Read about some of the spinal arthritis treatment options below so you’re familiar with some of them before you talk to spine specialist.
Dr. Fayaz may recommend treating your condition non-surgically. This can be done in several ways or a combination of a few approaches. It is important to remember that what works for one person may not work for another. This means it may take time to find an effective combination for your back pain.
Some of the most common non-surgical spinal arthritis treatments include:
Low-impact exercise. A set of exercises can be given for you to perform at home and/or a physical therapist can be recommended.
Hot and cold therapy
Lifestyle adjustments. This may be specific to posture while at work or while sleeping.
Over-the-counter medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn).
Massage. This can help reduce osteoarthritis pain in the spine, improve circulation, and reduce muscle tension and spasms. If possible, find a professional who is specifically trained in treating people with arthritis.
If over the counter medications and other conservative measures aren’t easing the symptoms, Dr. Fayaz may recommend prescription medications and facet joint blocks or injections, usually performed by a pain management physician. Please schedule a consultation with our office for more information on the best treatment options for you.
Because of its limited role in treating inflammatory arthritis of the spine, your back specialist will typically only recommend surgery as a last resort, when no other approach has proven effective. Typically, surgery is only needed in cases where the bones have fused together or where the pain is so extreme that it severely limits any range of motion.
There are two surgeries that may be performed for patients with spinal arthritis:
Decompression, which involves removing bone spurs and/or any thickened ligaments that are causing symptomatic nerve root compression.
Fusion, which stops motion at the painful or symptomatic joint
It’s wise to get a second opinion before making a decision. Dr. Fayaz is happy to help patients by serving as their second opinion.
It’s also important to carefully consider every option available before surgery is considered. For many patients, the need for back surgery can be avoided by committing to lifestyle changes that can lead to relief.