What are spinal bone spurs (osteophytes)?

What are spinal bone spurs (osteophytes)?

A bone spur, or 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 arthritic joints that have lost their smooth coating of cartilage. When joints develop arthritis, the exposed bones within the joint rub against each other and create friction. That’s when the body may build up extra bone in an attempt to strengthen the joint. These growths of bone 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, causing 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.

What causes spinal osteophytes?

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.

What are symptoms of spinal bone spurs?

In many cases, bone spurs are asymptomatic. You 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.

Common symptoms of spinal bone spurs:

  • If the bone spur presses on a nerve root in the cervical (upper) spine —it can cause pain and stiffness in the neck, headaches, and pain, numbness, tingling or weakness that radiates out through the shoulders, arms and hands.
  • If a bone spur presses on the spinal cord in the neck —it can 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 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 to the lower extremities.
  • If the bone spur develops 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.

How do you treat bone spurs on 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.

Nonsurgical treatment options for osteophytes in the spine

  • 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.

If you have been diagnosed with bone spurs 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.

Minimally invasive surgical treatment options for spinal osteophytes

  • A laminotomy —which can create additional space in the spinal canal when a bone spur has developed and is crowding the canal
  • 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 lower risk of complications compared to 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 free MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for our procedures.