Diagnosis and Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Adults above a certain age show signs of disk degeneration. In this article, learn all about diagnosis and treatment of osteoarthritis of the spine.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Last update: 19 December, 2019

Osteoarthritis of the spine is the degeneration of the nucleus pulposus of the intervertebral discs, which lose their thickness and density. It’s caused by the normal wear of the intervertebral discs.

Evolution of osteoarthritis of the spine

When young, our intervertebral discs are thick and have a gelatinous consistency. As the years pass, they dehydrate and lose height due to the modification of the nucleus pulposus composition.

From ages 30 to 40, it’s normal for X-rays to show early signs of osteoarthritis of the spine. It becomes evident at some level of the spine and can cause pain.

When discs wear down, their shock-absorbing capacity decreases, the load on the vertebra increases, and the bone grows, thus causing osteophytes or bone spurs, which can sometimes connect adjacent vertebrae.

They only cause problems when they produce spinal stenosis or compress the nerve. Genetic, nutritional, traumatic, and also mechanical factors influence the onset of this process and its progression.

80% of the general population have suffered from back pain at some point in their lives, and all adults above a certain age show signs of disc degeneration.

Risk factors

Various scientific studies show that:

  • Being overweight doesn’t accelerate disc degeneration. By contrast, a progressive weight gain of up to 26 pounds delays degeneration. However, as of yet, experts don’t know the effects of having more excess weight.
  • Smoking has a negative effect.
  • Working with heavy loads also has a minimal effect on degeneration.
  • A person’s genetics is the main determinant of disc degeneration.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine

Here are some of the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine:

  • Low back pain that comes and goes.
  • Morning column stiffness that gets better during the day and decreases with activity.
  • Low back pain that spreads to the buttocks, thighs, and pelvic region.
  • Loss of strength in the legs.
  • Neck pain and stiffness.
  • Restricted spinal mobility and difficulty bending down and walking.

As the discs wear down, the muscles have to progressively work harder to support the spine and maintain balance during movement. If the muscles are sufficiently strong and resilient, and the different muscle groups coordinate well, they can take that extra effort.

However, studies show that there’s no correlation between the degree of intervertebral disc wear and pain. The greater the muscle development, the less direct that relationship is. For this reason, some people with advanced degeneration suffer no pain but do have sufficient musculature.


A woman with low back pain.

Doctors base the diagnosis of osteoarthritis of the spine on symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and limited movement. In addition, doctors consider X-rays in patients who complain of pain and restricted mobility of the lumbar spine. Most doctors request spinal X-rays.


The goal of treatment is to relieve the patient’s pain and improve their quality of life. There are several available alternatives to this effect, such as physical actions, drugs, and surgery.

The treatment involves the use of painkillers such as acetaminophen. However, if they don’t relieve the pain, patients can combine them with anti-inflammatory drugs. In cases where anti-inflammatory drugs can’t be used, opioid analgesics such as tramadol may be useful.

Patients with severe osteoarthritis of the spine may suffer from an associated neurological complication. In these cases, the compression of a nerve or spinal stenosis makes treatment with other drugs such as pregabalin or gabapentin necessary.

In addition, the guidelines and treatments recommended by a physiotherapist may also prove helpful. Thus, the combination of all these options can help to relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine.

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