Here’s what you need to know about a bone spur in the spine

By Michael Perry, M.D.

Bone Spurs

If you have been diagnosed with a spinal bone spur, you may be in researching mode, gathering up all of the information you can find about what a bone spur is and the treatment options available to you. Researching this condition will help you to make an informed decision about your treatment options and to be an active participant in conversations with your doctor. As you read through this information, reach out to the team at Laser Spine Institute with any questions you may have.

What is a bone spur in the spine?

A bone spur, or an osteophyte, is a small, smooth projection that develops on the surface of a normal bone. Bone spurs can develop for a variety of reasons; one of the most common reasons is in response to friction — for instance, the friction that occurs within joints. When bones rub against other bones, the body may build up calcium deposits in an attempt to strengthen the bones to endure the friction created. These calcium deposits are called bone spurs, although this term is not entirely accurate since bone spurs are not sharp like a spur. As bone spurs grow larger, however, they can protrude into the nearby tissues, and can cause pain and other uncomfortable symptoms.

A bone spur can develop on virtually any bone in your body, including the vertebrae of the spine. When bone spurs develop on the bones in the spine, they can compress a nerve root or the spinal cord itself. This compression — and not the bone spur — is typically what causes pain and discomfort.

Bone spur causes

Bones conform to any pressure that is applied to them, and osteophytes are a common response to bone-on-bone pressure. Several different things can trigger these growths in the spine, such as:

  • Disc degeneration. Soft, cushioning discs separate the vertebrae of the spine. As these discs wear down, the vertebrae can come in contact with each other and trigger the development of bone spurs.
  • Spinal osteoarthritis. This condition occurs when cartilage between the spine’s joints wears away. As exposed joint ends rub against each other, the result can be extra pressure and friction. In an attempt to stabilize the joints, the body may create bone spurs.
  • Traumatic injury. This is a less common cause, but high-impact sports, auto accidents and other sudden impacts can accelerate spinal deterioration and ultimately lead to the development of osteophytes.
  • Natural aging. With time, tendons (which hold muscles to bones) and ligaments (which hold bones to bones) in the body can start to tighten and pull the bones away from where they should be. This can also stimulate the production of osteophytes.

Smoking and carrying excess body weight are not direct causes of bone spurs, but they can accelerate spinal degeneration, in turn increasing the likelihood of degenerative conditions like bone spurs. Other bone spur risk factors include a history of spinal traumas (including whiplash and compression fractures), a genetic predisposition to spinal degeneration and poor posture and eating habits.

Bone spur symptoms

In many cases, bone spurs are asymptomatic. Many people can have a bone spur without ever noticing anything out of the ordinary. However, if a spur pinches the spinal cord or the nerve roots that extend out of it, you may experience a number of uncomfortable symptoms.

In general, bone spurs that form along the spinal column and compress a nerve may cause severe localized pain, restricted movement, radiating arm and leg pain, weakness in the extremities and numbness. However, your symptoms may vary, depending on where in your spine the bone spur developed. For instance:

  • If the bone spur develops on one of the vertebrae in the cervical spine, it can cause pain and stiffness in the neck, headaches, and pain, numbness, tingling or weakness that radiates out through the arms and hands. If a bone spur presses on the spinal cord in the neck, it can also cause cervical myelopathy, a condition that can lead to muscle weakness in the legs and make it difficult to walk.
  • If the bone spur develops on one of the vertebrae in the thoracic spine, it can cause discomfort in the center of the back, behind the rib cage. Some symptoms may also travel to the abdomen, arms and shoulders or the lower extremities.
  • If the bone spur develops on one of the vertebrae in the lumbar spine, it can cause pain and stiffness in the lower back, as well as pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.

Some bone spur symptoms can be managed with conservative therapies, although others may persist until the spur or other tissue is surgically removed to decompress the affected nerve.

Treatment options for a bone spur in the spine

Conservative therapies are often the first line of treatment for bone spurs. Your physician may recommend that you use a combination of these nonsurgical options for a period of several weeks or months while your progress is monitored. Options such as the following can help minimize your bone spur symptoms:

  • Pain medications (both prescription and over-the-counter)
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Stretching and exercise
  • Alternative therapies (including acupuncture and chiropractic care)

You may need to use a process of trial and error to determine which of these treatments are most beneficial for your specific needs. Sometimes, however, symptoms will persist until the bone spur and/or surrounding tissue is removed surgically to relieve pressure on a nerve. If this is the case, you will have a number of surgical options that you can consider.

Surgery for a bone spur in the spine

If you have been diagnosed with a bone spur or another degenerative spine condition, and conservative treatment is not providing you with relief from your symptoms, it might be time to consider other approaches, such as the minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute. Depending on your diagnosis, our surgeons may be able to perform one of the following minimally invasive decompression procedures:

  • A laminotomy, which can create additional space in the spinal canal when a bone spur has developed on the surface of a normal bony structure and is crowding the canal
  • A discectomy, which can remove a portion of herniated or bulging disc material to alleviate compression on the spinal cord or a nerve root
  • A foraminotomy, which can be used to remove bone spurs and other tissues that are causing nerve compression inside a foramen
  • A facet thermal ablation, which can be used to deaden a nerve ending inside an arthritic spinal facet joint

For patients with more severe spinal degeneration, we also offer a number of minimally invasive stabilization techniques, which are associated with the same benefits of our other minimally invasive procedures: potentially faster recovery times, lower average infection rates and higher patient satisfaction scores than traditional open neck or back operations.^

If you have additional questions about your spinal bone spur, or you would like more information on Laser Spine Institute’s outpatient procedures, contact us today. We can offer a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.