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 — not the bone spur itself — 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. For instance:
- Disc degeneration — Soft, gelatinous 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 impinges upon the spinal cord or the nerve roots that extend out of it, a number of uncomfortable symptoms can develop.
In general, bone spurs that form along the spinal column and impinge upon a nerve may cause severe localized pain, restricted movement, radiating arm and leg pain, weakness in the extremities and numbness. However, each patient’s symptoms may vary, depending on where in his or her spine a 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 cause 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 removed to decompress the affected nerve.
Treatment options for bone spurs in the spine
Conservative therapies are often the first line of treatment for bone spurs. Physicians may recommend that patients use a combination of these non-surgical options for a period of several weeks or months. Options such as the following can help many patients minimize their 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)
Patients may need to use a process of trial and error to determine which of these treatments are most beneficial for their specific needs. Sometimes, however, symptoms will persist until the bone spur is removed surgically. When this is the case, patients will have a number of surgical options that they can consider.
Spinal bone spur surgery
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 surgeries 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 a nerve or nerve root
- A foraminotomy, which can be used to remove bone spurs and other tissues that are causing nerve compression inside an intervertebral 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, Laser Spine Institute also offers a number of minimally invasive stabilization techniques, which are associated with the same benefits of our other procedures: potentially faster recovery times, lower average infection rates and higher patient satisfaction rates 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.