Osteoarthritis of the spine specifically affects the facet joints, which are the bones that connect the spine, as well as the ligaments and cartilage between the spinal bones that make up the spine.

OA is a degenerative joint disease affecting an estimated 32.5 million Americans.

As you age, the cartilage coating the facet joints can slowly wear away. Your intervertebral discs are made primarily of water. These discs can dehydrate as you grow older.

This can cause the discs in your spine to narrow and put increased pressure on facet joints.

OA of the spine causes various symptoms. The most common is back pain, which often starts in the lower back.

In the early stages of the disease, you may only have pain in the mornings due to hours of inactivity. Since this is a progressive disease, symptoms typically worsen over time. Other symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine include:

  • joint tenderness
  • joint stiffness
  • limited range of motion
  • weakness or numbness in the legs or arms, tingling in the legs

Back pain caused by OA of the spine is often worse when sitting upright or standing. It usually improves when lying down. Some people who have osteoarthritis of the spine don’t have any symptoms.

OA is caused by slow deterioration of cartilage around joints in the lower back. The exact cause of this deterioration is unknown, but some people have a higher chance of developing the conditions. This includes individuals who have experienced spine trauma.

Experiencing an injury at a younger age can make your cartilage break down much faster. Obesity can also play a role in OA of the spine because extra body weight puts added stress on the joints in your spine. Other risk factors include:

  • advancing age
  • being a female
  • family history of osteoarthritis
  • working in an occupation involving repetitive stress
  • defective joints or cartilage at birth

At what age do people get osteoarthritis in their spine?

OA is a disease associated with older age. The facet joints of the spine, in particular, tend to degenerate gradually as you age.

There’s limited research on the prevalence of spinal osteoarthritis, but like other types of arthritis, it tends to develop in middle-to-older age.

Before diagnosing OA of the spine, your doctor may ask about your family history of the disease and complete a physical examination to check for tenderness, limited range of motion, and swelling in your back. Tell your doctor about any other symptoms you might have, such as numbness or weakness.

Imaging tests are commonly used to diagnose OA of the spine. These tests can check for bone damage, bone spurs, and loss of cartilage in your joints. Your doctor may order an X-ray or an MRI, which creates a detailed picture of your spine.

Since osteoarthritis of the spine has symptoms that are similar to other conditions, your doctor may also take your blood to rule out other diseases.

Some doctors order a joint fluid analysis. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a needle in the affected joint to collect a fluid sample. This test can determine whether symptoms are caused by OA, gout, or an infection.

Do not ignore potential symptoms of OA of the spine. This is a progressive disease that can worsen over time and can become disabling.

Over time, it can cause complications such as:

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis of the spine, and the condition isn’t reversible. The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and to improve the mobility of the affected joint. Your doctor can discuss possible treatment options with you.

Pain from OA of the spine may respond to over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Advil).

If this doesn’t help, your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain medication, such as tramadol (Ultram) or duloxetine, or have you try a skeletal muscle relaxant to relieve your symptoms.

If these treatments aren’t successful, your next option is a corticosteroid injection directly into the facet joint. Another option is an epidural injection, which foes into the epidural space near a nerve that is causing discomfort.

Another treatment is a medial branch nerve ablation. Surgery isn’t a common treatment for OA of the spine, but in severe cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure to replace damaged discs in your spine.

Lifestyle changes for OA of the spine

Some natural treatments can be helpful in some cases and may reduce the chance of needing an invasive treatment. These include:

  • gentle exercises (e.g., tai chi and yoga) to reduce pain and improve range of motion in the remaining cartilage
  • heat or cold therapy
  • occupational and physical therapy

In general, making healthy lifestyle changes can make it easier to live with osteoarthritis of the spine.

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can improve symptoms and alleviate spinal pressure. Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week is also effective.

Is walking good for osteoarthritis of the spine?

Exercise does not have to be intense can include walking. In fact, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor before trying anything more strenuous and stop doing anything that causes you pain.

The right exercise can help strengthen joints and improve the range of motion. Other benefits of a regular exercise routine include better moods, a stronger heart, and increased blood flow.

The more active you are, the easier it will be to manage everyday tasks without pain. Talk to your doctor about safe exercises. Other than walking, options include swimming, aerobic activities, yoga, pilates, tai chi, and strength training.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic and degenerative disease. It’s commonly associated with aging, and your outlook varies depending on the severity of your condition.

In other words, the disease is unpredictable. Some people with OA become partially or severely disabled due to joint deterioration in their spine, whereas others may only have mild symptoms. For example, if your pain is more severe, you may require surgery, whereas people with milder symptoms might be able to live with less invasive treatments.

That said, treatment and lifestyle changes can help slow the progression of the disease. For a positive outlook, don’t ignore symptoms, and talk with your doctor if you have pain, numbness, weakness, or swelling in your back — or in any part of your body.