Spinal arthritis can be devastating to the neck and back because of the way the spine is structured and also because of the way arthritis leads to the breakdown of cartilage in the spine.
The spine is composed of a stack of bones, called vertebrae. About two dozen cervical vertebrae (neck), thoracic vertebrae (middle back) and lumbar vertebrae (lower back) hinge together to form joints (specifically facet joints), and each of these joints has a lining of cartilage to keep their movements smooth and free of friction. In between the stacked vertebrae, there also are discs made of mostly cartilage to cushion the many movements our backs and necks make throughout each day.
When arthritis occurs anywhere in the body, including in the spine, cartilage wears away. In cases of spinal arthritis, cartilage on the surface of the facet joints wears away, plus cartilage in the spinal discs breaks down. The combination of unprotected joint surfaces and flattened discs means the vertebrae are rubbing directly against each other. This bone-on-bone friction leads to pain, stiffness and the formation of bone spurs that can impinge on the sensitive nerve roots and spinal cord.
Spinal arthritis is a fairly broad category, so it is important to narrow it down into two common forms: osteoarthritis of the spine and rheumatoid spinal arthritis.
Mainly believed to be caused by age and overuse of the joints, osteoarthritis is extremely common in weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips, hands and the spine.
While a healthy joint, such as a facet joint of the spine, remains well lubricated by synovial fluid and has plenty of cartilage to keep the joint hinged properly and painlessly, a joint that is affected by osteoarthritis has begun to degrade. Cartilage becomes dry and brittle, bones rub against one another, and each movement of the joint becomes extremely painful.
While the specific cause of osteoarthritis is not always clear, it is believed to be prompted by:
- Overuse of joints
- Genetic predisposition
- A lowered immune system
- Muscle weakness
The other most common type of spinal arthritis is spinal rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes, the terms osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are used interchangeably — but this is incorrect. While osteoarthritis deals with degeneration of cartilage, spinal rheumatoid arthritis deals with the inflammation of the joints that can eventually affect the cartilage.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that cells are attacking the body’s own healthy tissue. In rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks a thin film of synovial tissue that normally lubricates joints, but when this tissue is under attack, it becomes inflamed, damaged cartilage and leads to joint pain and dysfunction.
In both types of spinal arthritis, there are ways to minimize pain. Anything that relieves some of the weight or stress from the degenerated or swollen joints can be helpful. For instance, weight loss may help to alleviate pain. You also can try rest, anti-inflammatory medications or gentle chiropractic work. If none of these treatments prove helpful, your physician may suggest surgery.
Choosing to have surgery is an extremely important decision that should not be made until you’ve explored all of your options. Laser Spine Institute offers minimally invasive procedures that could help you find relief from neck and back pain. Contact us today to learn more about our minimally invasive, outpatient procedures.