Spondylosis is a medical term that is occasionally used by physicians to broadly refer to various forms of spinal degeneration that accompany the normal aging process. Other physicians use the term spondylosis more specifically to refer to the presence of spinal osteoarthritis, a condition characterized by the deterioration of cartilage that covers the facet joints in the spine. These joints are located in between individual vertebrae, and they are important because they help provide the spine with the ability to bend, twist and flex.
Causes and risk factors
Spondylosis, by definition, is caused by nothing more dramatic than simply growing older. However, there are a number of risk factors that can greatly exacerbate the likelihood that a person will develop symptomatic spondylosis. These risk factors include obesity, genetic tendencies, traumatic injury and participation in high-impact sports, but the most common cause is age-related degeneration due to years of wear and tear. The soft tissues in the spine – intervertebral discs, tendons, muscles, ligaments and the cartilage that lines the facet joints – all begin to deteriorate over time. Discs, which are normally saturated with water, dehydrate and weaken. Facet joint cartilage begins to wear away, allowing bone-on-bone contact and prompting the development of bone spurs (osteophytes). Muscles weaken and ligaments and tendons tighten, thicken and become stiff. While some individuals experience more degenerative changes than others with spondylosis, most individuals will show some signs of deterioration of the spinal components in an X-ray, MRI or CT scan by the age of 40.
The typical spine consists of 33 vertebrae, 24 of which are individually stacked to create the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. Nine fused vertebrae make up the sacrum and coccyx (tailbone). Spondylosis is usually diagnosed in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions and is often classified by its location:
- Multilevel spondylosis – affects the spinal components in more than one region of the spine
- Cervical spondylosis – affects the seven cervical vertebrae (C1-C7) that make up the neck region; deterioration is common here, given that these vertebrae are highly mobile and must support the weight of the head.
- Thoracic spondylosis – affects the 12 thoracic vertebrae (T1-T12); deterioration is possible in the middle back, but is less common, as this area is of the spine is connected to, and supported by, the ribcage.
- Lumbar spondylosis –affects the five lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5); degeneration is prevalent in this area of the spine, particularly because vertebrae in the lower back support the body’s weight and help facilitate a wide range of motion..
Common symptoms and treatment methods
It should be noted that not every person with spondylosis will experience symptoms. Pain, muscle weakness, tingling and numbness can arise if spinal degeneration leads to the development of an anatomical abnormality (bulging or herniated disc, calcified ligaments, bone spurs, etc.) that comes into contact with the spinal cord or one of its nerve roots. A patient with spinal arthritis also may experience neck or back pain, stiffness, inflammation and a reduced range of motion. Treatment for these symptoms generally begins with conservative (non-surgical) options, such as pain medication, hot/cold therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy. In the event that symptoms persist after several weeks or months of treatment, a physician may recommend surgery. Contact Laser Spine Institute to learn how one of our minimally invasive procedures can help you find meaningful relief from the symptoms of spondylosis.