Arthritis of the Lower Back

 In Conditions & Treatments

Arthritis of the Lower Back


hat is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a condition in which the cartilage that provides cushioning for the bones wears away. As a result, there is swelling and pain, and it can occasionally cause the development of osteophytes or bone spurs.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is characterized primarily by stiffness and pain that tends to be worse in the morning, typically for about the first 30 minutes after getting out of bed. It can also worsen throughout the day, causing increased pain at night.

Other symptoms can include:

  • localized tenderness when pressing on the affected area
  • steady or intermittent pain (often described as aching) that can be aggravated by motion
  • a crunching feeling or sound of bone rubbing on bone when the joint is moved
  • a sensation of pinching, tingling, or numbness in a nerve which can occur when bones spurs form at the edge of the joints of the spine and irritate nerves

Early on in the course of arthritis a person may only experience pain after physical work or exercise. The pain typically subsides and then returns as the joint is overused. As the cartilage wears away the pain becomes more constant. Pain and stiffness can occur after long periods of inactivity such as a car ride.

Who gets osteoarthritis of the spine?

In general, osteoarthritis occurs as people age. Younger people may have the condition as a result of injury or trauma to a joint or a genetic defect involving cartilage. For those under 45 years of age arthritis is more common in men. For those over 45 years of age it is more common in women.

How is osteoarthritis of the spine diagnosed?

The best confirmation of osteoarthritis is by x-ray. A medical history and physical exam can often rule out other causes of pain. Some physicians will order other tests that can assist in the diagnosis as well such as blood tests to exclude other diseases and magnetic resonance imaging to show possible damage to discs or narrowing of areas where nerves exit. Because there are numerous other conditions that seem similar to osteoarthritis of the spine, it is very important to receive an accurate clinical diagnosis from a physician who specializes in spinal medicine or spinal surgery.

How is osteoarthritis of the spine treated?

In most cases the treatment is geared toward relieving the pain symptoms while increasing the individual’s ability to function. The initial treatment for spinal arthritis often involves losing weight if needed as well as exercise, which helps to increase flexibility and improve blood flow. Exercise can be broken down into strengthening exercises, aerobic exercises, and range of motion exercises. Strengthening exercises make the muscles that support the joints stronger. Aerobic exercises improve the heart and circulatory system while range of motion exercises increase flexibility. All three of these aspects are equally important in treating arthritic pain. Your physician may send you to a physical therapist who can help develop an exercise plan. Pain medications may also be used to treat osteoarthritis of the spine. Many studies suggest that Tylenol may be the most effective medication to treat this condition. Anti-inflammatory medications may be used as well, and there are topical ointments that are available to treat pain such as Ben-Gay and Aspercreme. If conservative measures are not enough, your physician may recommend that you consider spinal injections. There are multiple kinds of spinal injections that can be extremely helpful for osteoarthritis of the spine. Some injections involve corticosteroids and some do not.

Although there is no cure for arthritis of the spine, in most cases symptoms of arthritis back pain can be relieved by conservative treatment and lifestyle changes. If symptoms persist contact your physician for a complete evaluation.

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