Degenerative Joint Disease – What You Need to Know

Degenerative joint disease can sneak up on you. As you get older, you may begin to notice some subtle changes in your joints, particularly those in your neck and back — your hard-working spinal facet joints. This age-related condition, which is also known as osteoarthritis, can also be caused by a sudden injury or joint trauma. However, it is more often a result of nothing more than the cumulative effects of daily wear and tear.

The initial warning signs of degenerative joint disease in the spine are typically neck or back pain, swelling, stiffness and a general “creakiness” that worsens with repetitive movements. As the condition progresses, nerve compression in the spine may also produce numbness or weakness in the arms or legs.

What’s going on?

Degenerative joint disease can lead to the inflammation, breakdown and eventual loss of the protective cartilage that lines the joints. Cartilage is a tough but flexible tissue that cushions the ends of bones where they come together in a joint, allowing the bones to glide smoothly over one another through a wide range of motion. Without cartilage, painful (and sometimes debilitating) bone-on-bone contact can occur.

As degenerative joint disease causes the cartilage in the spinal facet joints to break down, other changes in the spine can occur at the same time. For instance, the soft disks that serve as cushions between the spinal vertebrae can become drier and flatten out with age. This can contribute to increased friction between the bones in a joint. In response, the body may produce protective bone spurs around the affected joints, causing the spine to stiffen and lose flexibility.

Additionally, because a bone spur that forms on the spine can take up space within the spinal canal, it can potentially pinch a spinal nerve root or the spinal cord itself — causing pain, numbness, weakness or tingling sensations that travel down an arm or leg.

A diagnosis is your first step toward finding relief

After a thorough analysis of the location, duration and character of your joint symptoms, as well as the appearance of your joints, a physician can confirm or rule out a diagnosis of degenerative joint disease. X-rays and other imaging studies may be useful for revealing a loss of joint cartilage, a narrowing of the space between the bones in a joint or the formation of bone spurs. This information can be helpful to a physician in excluding other possible causes of joint pain, as well as making specific treatment recommendations.

Currently, there is no proven way to reverse or halt the effects of degenerative joint disease. For this reason, it is especially important to take steps to reduce the stress on your joints by strengthening supporting muscles and losing weight, if necessary.

Additionally, if you are experiencing pain related to degenerative joint disease, you may benefit from conservative treatments like:

  • Rest and activity modification. Decrease the frequency and intensity of any activities that are known to cause joint pain.
  • Low-impact exercise and strength training. Physical activity can be beneficial for degenerative joint disease in a number of ways. First, it can strengthen the muscles that support the spine. Second, it can help prevent damaged joints from “freezing up” by improving joint mobility. Finally, it can promote weight loss. In addition to light weight training, some forms of exercise that can be particularly beneficial include swimming, walking and cycling.
  • Hot and cold packs. Applying heat before exercise and ice packs afterward can help relieve pain and inflammation associated with degenerative joint disease.
  • Occupational therapy. An occupational therapist can evaluate the demands of your daily work routine and recommend body positions, movements and assistance devices designed to reduce stress on your spine.
  • A neck or back brace. At certain times during the day, you might wear a supportive device to enhance the stability of your spine.
  • Medications. To complement physical treatment approaches, medications can be taken orally, applied topically or injected into an affected joint to reduce pain and inflammation.

If your pain is severe

To address chronic discomfort that does not respond sufficiently to conservative treatments, spinal injections may be helpful, especially if you would prefer to avoid the need for surgery. This approach is believed to work by temporarily restoring the thickness of the fluid within a degenerated joint, allowing for better joint lubrication and impact capability, and perhaps by directly affecting pain receptors.

Surgery is usually reserved for people who are diagnosed with degenerative joint disease that produces very severe symptoms, such as intense pain or reduced mobility. While traditional open spine surgery can sometimes result in dramatic pain relief and improved function, it may be possible to achieve similar results without this type of highly invasive procedure. For instance, the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive procedures that are safer and effective alternatives to traditional open back procedures.^

If you’d like to learn more about our minimally invasive approach to treating degenerative joint disease, contact Laser Spine Institute today. Our dedicated team can tell you how to get a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.