Many people experience back pain, stiffness and sometimes swelling. These could develop due to bad posture and habits, stress, an accident, a simple injury or in many cases arthritis – a degenerative condition. There are many types of arthritis and some related conditions that affect the joints, muscles and/or bones. Any part of the back could become affected but the lower back is said to be one of the most usual parts to suffer from arthritis as it carries a big part of the body’s weight. The term arthritis describes a number of different illnesses that cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Most forms of arthritis can occur in any joint, including spine joints. Spinal arthritis is a collective term for the types of arthritis that affect the spine region. The most common forms of spinal arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. First, we will discuss osteoarthritis in the back.
Osteoarthritis. Spinal osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (not to be confused with degenerative disc disease – spondylosis), is a chronic condition which is characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage at the end of the bones where they meet to form joints. In the spine, this phenomenon takes place in the cartilage of the facet joints (that is why spinal osteoarthritis is sometimes referred to as arthritis of the facet joints), where the vertebrae join. It becomes rough and worn out and so the joint halves start rubbing against each other, which causes immense pain and inflammation and leads to the formation of the so-called bone spurs – bony outgrows from the vertebrae, which can press on nerves. These are said to be nature’s attempt at making the joint stable again.
- Anatomical division of spinal osteoarthritis
- Lower back (lumbar spine) osteoarthritis, also called lumbosacral arthritis – the most common source of low back problems (pain, stiffness etc.); it produces pain in the lower spine and the join between the spine and pelvis
- Neck (cervical spine) osteoarthritis, also called cervical spondylosis – a typical neck condition, it produces pain in the neck, upper spine parts, shoulders, arms, and head
Symptoms of spinal osteoarthritis
Pain and stiffness are the usual symptoms of osteoarthritis, but it should be mentioned that not all people who have the disease actually suffer from them. When they do occur, they are stronger in the morning and evening, and lesser during the day, when the person goes on with their daily activities. Symptoms of osteoarthritis could either be mild or severe. In the second case, they have a huge impact on the quality of life. Other symptoms of osteoarthritis could include:
- Tenderness when the affected area is pressed
- Loss of flexibility of a joint
- Weakness and/or numbness
- A pinching/tingling sensation in a nerve
- Feeling and/or sound of bones rubbing against each other (mostly in the neck)
Causes of and risk factors for osteoarthritis
Most of the times, there exists a number of factors, the combination of which leads to osteoarthritis. The most common causes of this disease are said to be poor posture, sports injuries, spine traumas caused by an accident. At greater risk are people whose jobs involve repetitive and heavy motion, and athletes. Some known risk factors for developing spinal osteoarthritis include:
- Spinal aging – it begins when a person is in their 30s and is mostly work-related
- Obesity – overweight and obese people have a higher chance of developing a form of spinal arthritis because excess weight traumatizes the joints and spine
- Genetics – if somebody in your family has suffered from this disease or related ones, you are more likely to develop it yourself
- Gender – below the age of 45, osteoarthritis is more common in men, but after that it is said to be more common in women
- The presence of diabetes and/or other forms of arthritis
Diagnosing spinal osteoarthritis
You should see your GP if you feel back pain and experience stiffness for more than two weeks. It is important to diagnose the condition early in order to treat it in the best way possible and avoid complications. The usual procedure involves:
- a physical examination of the patient to evaluate things such as general health and reflexes
- a discussion with the patient in which they describe their symptoms, as well as previous diseases and any taken medication (medical history)
- X-ray – the doctor may order it in order to find out if there is joint damage or bone spurs. However, an X-ray does not show any sign of osteoarthritis in its early stages, so the medical history and physical examination are essential for the diagnosis.
- Other tests that can be used to rule out other conditions are for example a radioactive bone scan, a CT scan or an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging scan).
Handling spinal osteoarthritis
Most treatment for controlling osteoarthritis puts emphasis on ways to relieve the pain and improve the patient’s ability to function. Sadly, there is no proven treatment to slow or eliminate spinal osteoarthritis as a whole, but an accurate diagnosis and adequate treatment are of vital importance for dealing with the pain and stiffness. Most people will benefit from a combination of lifestyle changes that involve doing more exercise, quitting to smoke and reducing their weight. The best proactive treatment is said to be an active exercise program that emphasizes stretching. People with osteoarthritis benefit from active yoga, pilates and tai-chi programs. Last but not least, proper medication can reduce pain and stiffness but it is definitely not the only thing needed.
Rheumatoid arthritis in the back
Rheumatoid arthritis of the spine affects the joints of the spine. It is a chronic inflammatory disease, caused by an autoimmune disorder. This is when your immune system attacks the membrane that lines the joints by mistake (as it normally protects us from infection). In severe cases, rheumatoid arthritis can lead to destruction of the joints. It can also affect some internal organs and systems. Spinal rheumatoid arthritis is not as usual as osteoarthritis, but is in general more weakening.
Some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are similar to those of osteoarthritis. Some of them are:
- When you are weary/have headaches without reason
- When you experience local tenderness of the affected area
- When you feel a warm sensation in some joints
- You have trouble walking
- You experience pain and stiffness in the back and pain and tingling feeling down the arms
Handling rheumatoid arthritis
For the majority of people, the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis does not involve a surgery. There are rare cases in which one has to undergo surgery. The treatment involves a combination of diet and exercise, as well as different medications and of course physical therapy, as with osteoarthritis. The goals of it include elimination of the pain, slowing the progression of the disease and maintaining a normal lifestyle.
Spinal arthritis is a serious condition and should not be neglected. Not every back pain means arthritis, but an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment are essential. Do not forget that preventing a disease from occurring is easier than curing it, especially when it comes to arthritis, as in the majority of cases it is a chronic condition which accompanies a person during a big part of their life. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which involves a lot of exercise and a proper diet and keeping an eye on your posture are vital for preventing arthritis from occurring and for keeping it “on a leash” if it has already become a part of your life.