Arthritis leads the list of disabling conditions, affecting more than 43 million people in the United States. Nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population experiences the painful stiffness and other symptoms that this chronic condition causes, and more than half of all adults 65 and older find themselves coping with the symptoms of this disorder.
Like all forms of arthritis, arthritis in the back or spine causes symptoms of inflammation (swelling), pain and joint immobility. Arthritis in the back can also cause specific symptoms such as:
Recurring back, neck and shoulder pain Stiffness and difficulty getting out of bed, especially in the morning or after inactivity Pain in the lower back that travels down the buttocks and legs Problems bending over or walking The sound or feeling of bone rubbing on bone Numbness in the arms or legs
Spinal arthritis is also sometimes called spinal stenosis. Stenosis means narrowing, and it is most often caused by a form of arthritis called osteoarthritis.
Doctors may use a variety of diagnostic tests to determine if a patient's symptoms are caused by arthritis in the back or spine. Diagnostic tests for arthritis include blood tests, X-rays to check for spinal deterioration or cartilage damage, MRIs to check for problems with the spinal cord or spinal nerves and CAT scans to check the size and shape of spinal structures. Bone scans and myelograms, in which dye is injected into the body so that doctors can visualize spinal problems, may also be used to diagnose arthritis of the back.
To reduce stiffness and pain, doctors often recommend that people with arthritis of the back undergo physical therapy or start a regular exercise program. Performing range-of-motion exercises, cardiovascular exercise and strengthening exercises with bands or weights can help arthritis patients get stronger and move more easily. In addition, back braces, massages, acupuncture, nerve stimulation, hydrotherapy and hot and cold therapy are often used to relieve pain and inflammation.
Doctors prescribe a variety of medicines for people with symptoms of arthritis in the back. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, can help alleviate pain. Prescription medicines, such as COX-2 inhibitors, opioids and narcotics, may also be prescribed for more severe pain. Creams and ointments designed to reduce inflammation may also help.
When a person's arthritis in the back is severe, a surgeon may recommend one of several procedures designed to relieve pressure, pain and narrowing in the spine. Surgeons may use procedures called decompressive laminectomy, laminotomy or spinal fusion to surgically treat people with arthritis symptoms in the back.