What is degenerative joint disease and what causes it to develop?

Degenerative joint disease, also called osteoarthritis or degenerative arthritis, is a condition that develops as the body wears down with age. If you have this condition, you may experience some stiffness in your joints when you try to move a certain way, or even some pain in your neck or back. A common sign that you may have developed this condition is that your daily chores become difficult to complete due to the pain and stiffness in your spine and other areas of your body.

If you notice a change in your ability to complete your daily tasks, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine if you have developed degenerative joint disease. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and perform an evaluation to diagnose the cause of your pain.

Causes of degenerative joint disease

Degenerative joint disease in the spine affects the facet joints, which are the joints on both sides of a vertebra that allow the spine to bend and twist. These joints are lined with a thin layer of cartilage and covered with thick lubricating fluid, which allows adjacent vertebrae to glide against one another comfortably. When degenerative joint disease occurs in the spine, a condition also commonly known as facet disease, this cartilage wears away, causing the vertebral joints to rub together directly. This can cause inflammation, localized pain and a number of other symptoms.

Also known as osteoarthritis, the onset of degenerative joint disease is primarily caused by the natural aging process as years of wear and tear take their toll on the joints, including the vertebral joints. It can also be accelerated by factors like diabetes, obesity, congenital disorders or injury. Arthritis is capable of developing in any joint in the body, and is commonly seen in the neck and lower back because these regions are highly flexible while being burdened by supporting body weight.

Often, the effects of degenerative joint disease develop gradually and are at their worst in the early morning or after prolonged periods of inactivity. However, arthritis can eventually develop to the point that joint movement is difficult if not impossible, having a profound impact on your quality of life.

Symptoms of degenerative joint disease in the spine

The symptoms of degenerative joint disease in the spine vary based on a number of factors, namely the extent of the arthritis, your age and overall health, the presence of other degenerative spine conditions and also the exact location of the facet disease itself. The reason location is so important is that this condition often causes painful symptoms to develop in other parts of the body nearest the deteriorated joint, such as:

  • Cervical spine. When degenerative joint disease develops in the cervical (upper) spine, symptoms may be experienced in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers and upper back.
  • Thoracic spine. Degenerative joint disease in the thoracic (middle) spine can lead to symptoms throughout the mid-torso, including those that can sometimes be mistaken for heart or lung issues.
  • Lumbar spine. Facet disease in the lumbar (lower) spine can cause symptoms anywhere throughout the bottom half of the body, including the back, buttocks, hips, legs, feet and toes.

The most common symptom of this degenerative spine condition is localized pain near the arthritic joint. This condition can also cause a grinding feeling of bone rubbing against bone, warmth, numbness or tingling, joint stiffness or lockage, radiating pain that begins near the problem area and extends through the extremities and other uncomfortable symptoms.

The presence of joint deterioration can have an impact on the rest of the spinal anatomy as well. Arthritis in a vertebral joint may increase the strain placed on a nearby disc, causing this pad that normally cushions the spine to gradually thin and rupture.

The formation of bone spurs also frequently accompanies degenerative joint disease. The body grows these natural protrusions of bone in response to the bone-on-bone contact that occurs in more advanced cases of arthritis. These bone spurs are not inherently symptomatic but can cause problems when they come in contact with surrounding soft tissue, including nearby spinal nerves.

Treatments for degenerative joint disease

If your primary care doctor diagnoses you with degenerative joint disease in the spine, you can often effectively manage your symptoms nonsurgically. While degenerative joint disease cannot be cured, there are a number of different treatment approaches available that can help manage pain and improve or maintain spinal flexibility. However, finding the right combination of conservative treatments requires a close partnership between you and your doctor. What works for some patients does not work for everyone and it can sometimes take some trial and error to find the approach that provides sufficient relief.

Furthermore, the wrong style of treatment can prove entirely ineffective or even make matters worse. Still, with the right expectations and patience, a course of conservative treatment can often prevent the need for surgery. Depending on your specific condition, your doctor may recommend the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, hot/cold compresses, low-impact exercise and other similar treatments. Lifestyle adjustments are also often recommended. For example, losing excess weight through healthy diet and exercise can relieve pressure on the spine and strengthen supporting muscles. Limiting alcohol intake and quitting smoking may also be advised.

In addition to conservative degenerative joint disease treatments, many patients also turn to alternative medicine. The use of chiropractic therapy, deep tissue massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy and other similar methods are all quite popular. However, alternative medicine is still not fully supported within the mainstream medical community, as the overall effectiveness of these techniques hasn’t been firmly established. So, it is always advised to speak with your doctor before beginning any new treatment plan.

If weeks or months of conservative and alternative treatments prove ineffective, spine surgery may be recommended to provide lasting relief. Many patients are often reluctant to undergo spine surgery due to the risks and difficulties associated with a traditional open neck or back procedure.

Laser Spine Institute

At Laser Spine Institute, our board-certified+ surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgery that treats the sources of neck and back pain. State-of-the-art techniques allow us to perform these procedures on an outpatient basis, without the large incisions of a traditional open spine operation. The result is a streamlined experience for our patients and a reduced risk of complication when compared to traditional procedures.

Contact Laser Spine Institute today for your no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.