What is spondylosis?
The main causes of spondylosis are aging and osteoarthritis. Other factors can add to your risk of spondylosis.
Spondylosis is the often-painful deterioration of your spine. It is usually caused by changes in your spine triggered by age, wear-and-tear, and osteoarthritis. If you have previously injured your spine, you may be more likely to develop spondylosis.
There are three kinds of spondylosis, named for where the problems occur. Cervical spondylosis affects the top seven (C1-C7) vertebrae (bones of your spine). “Cervix” is another term for the neck. Lumbar spondylosis impacts the five vertebrae in your lower back (L1-L5). Thoracic spondylosis impacts your thoracic vertebrae (the vertebrae in the middle of your back [T1-T12]). Spondylosis in the middle of your back is rare.
Your doctor may not use the term “spondylosis” at all. Often, health professionals use more specific terms, such as lumbar spinal stenosis or cervical degenerative disc disease, especially when they have a good idea of the exact nature of your problem.
Other conditions, such as spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis, have similar names derived from “spondy,” meaning spine. To avoid confusion, many doctors use terms like “spinal arthritis” to refer to spondylosis instead.
Symptoms of spondylosis
Pain is the main symptom of spondylosis. Other symptoms may depend upon where you are experiencing problems and on the type of spondylosis. See below for a description of symptoms for each type.
Cervical spondylosis symptoms
A jerky walk may be the first sign of cervical spondylosis, along with neck pain and stiffness. In this type of spondylosis, the pain can spread down your arms to your fingers, but it often comes and goes.
Thoracic spondylosis symptoms
Thoracic spondylosis causes pain in the middle of your back along with early morning stiffness. If you have thoracic spondylosis, both bending and extending your body can cause pain, as can twisting your spine.
Lumbar spondylosis symptoms
Lumbar spondylosis causes pain in your lower back that may be worse in certain positions. Often, bending makes the pain worse, while straightening up relieves it.
Besides back pain, symptoms of lumbar spondylosis can include numbness and tingling in your buttocks and legs and, in some cases, a loss of bladder or bowel control.
Causes of spondylosis
- An occupation that stresses your spine or that requires repetitive movement
- A sedentary lifestyle
- A family history of spine problems
Three processes that impact your spine lead to spondylosis. These are:
Degeneration of the spinal discs
Discs act as shock absorbers between the bones of your spine, called vertebrae. Spinal discs have a tough outside and a softer inside. With age, your discs become thinner and don’t cushion the bones as well. The other cartilage in your spine may also wear away.
Growth of bone spurs
When your vertebrae aren’t well-cushioned by discs, they may grow bone spurs to protect themselves. Sometimes the bone spurs press on a nerve.
As your spine continues to deteriorate, the discs may bulge out between your vertebrae. These damaged discs may also press on your nerves. In a few cases, a disc may rupture or herniate, causing a sudden increase in pain along with numbness, tingling, and other symptoms.
Narrowed spinal canal
The combination of all these processes can result in your spinal canal becoming narrower, causing your spinal cord to have less room. This is a condition called spinal stenosis. Crowding of your nerve tissue can cause pain.
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Tests for spondylosis
Your doctor will check for spondylosis by giving you a physical exam. Diagnostic tests can include:
- X-rays to check the spaces between your discs and look for bone spurs
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) to look for nerves that are pinched or crowded
- An electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study (NCS) to check how well your nerves are carrying signals
Treatments for spondylosis
Because some degeneration of your spine is a natural part of aging, most doctors take a conservative approach to the treatment of spondylosis. Even if diagnostic tests show some evidence of spondylosis, it may not cause pain.
Several studies have looked at individuals with spondylosis. When they were given MRIs, from 37% to 79% of these individuals showed evidence of disc degeneration, but they did not report experiencing back pain.
If your doctor decides that treatment is necessary, they will often begin by prescribing medications such as pain relievers, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy to strengthen the muscles that support your spine. Steroid injections are another option.
If these therapies fail, and you have pain along with weakness and numbness, your doctor may offer surgical treatment, which could involve spinal fusion, disc repair, removal of bone spurs, or other remedies.