Anterior osteophytes are bone spurs that develop on the front, or anterior aspect, of the vertebrae. They appear to be more common in the cervical spine (neck) than in other spinal segments, as the neck is considerably more prone to degenerative conditions that contribute to osteophyte formation.
As we age, the intervertebral discs in the spine begin to dry out. As this process continues, the discs become drier and more brittle and lose their thickness, making them more susceptible to herniation or other damage. As discs shrink, so does the intervertebral space, and this increases the risk of the vertebral bones coming in contact with one another. As with any joint, bone-on-bone friction acts as a stimulant to bone growth; this is the root cause of most bone spurs throughout the body.
Anterior osteophytes develop on the front side of the vertebrae, largely because the spine’s structure allows the anterior side to compress further than the posterior. The result is that anterior osteophytes tend to be larger and, therefore, more problematic than posterior osteophytes. The following symptoms are associated with anterior osteophytes:
- Pain, often intense, that may radiate down the arms and neck
- Difficulty swallowing
- Nerve or spinal cord impingement
- Decreased circulation in certain blood vessels
- Difficulty breathing
Surgery to correct anterior osteophytes is generally only indicated if nonsurgical, conservative treatments have proven ineffective, symptoms fail to improve and serious dysfunctions like the ones above continue or worsen. Such an operation is highly invasive, as the surgeon must access the anterior aspect of the spine through the front of the neck. Normally, the operation requires that the gap between the vertebrae be enlarged and the disc excised; then, the surgeon may remove the osteophytes and resurface the scarred and damaged vertebral body. A bone graft taken from the patient’s hip bone is the typical means of fusing the vertebrae together at this spot, and the surgeon may also use an anterior plate to further stabilize the cervical spine.
This operation is massively invasive and requires a lengthy hospitalization and recovery; unfortunately, this is the standard method of removing anterior osteophytes, which are inaccessible through other means.