How to define a bone spur in the spine

By Michael Perry, M.D.

To define a spinal bone spur, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how the condition occurs, as well as how it produces symptoms. Osteophytes, or bone spurs, in the spine are often the body’s response to reduced stability within a spinal joint. As the body ages, the cartilage lining the spinal joints becomes worn. In the spine, the joints where the vertebrae meet are known as facet joints. The soft, smooth cartilage that lines the facet joints is subjected to a great deal of wear and tear associated with years of bending, twisting and turning. In addition, the joints within the cervical (upper) region and the lumbar (lower) region of the spine aid in supporting the weight of the head and the upper body, respectively.

This combination of body movement and pressure make joints within the cervical and lumbar regions vulnerable to osteoarthritis, an age-related condition marked by cartilage deterioration in joints. Bone spurs are outgrowths of bone that are a response to the increased friction and instability caused by this deterioration. While they aren’t painful by themselves, bone spurs can cause nerve compression, which is the source of the symptoms that patients seek treatment for.

Bone spur symptoms

Bone spurs are not necessarily symptomatic. The first sign of a spinal bone spur might be a grinding sound known as crepitus, along with a gradual reduction in range of motion. As the bone spur grows, it can begin to encroach on the space occupied by a spinal nerve root or the spinal cord. Certain movements might cause the osteophyte to make contact with a nerve structure. The contact might be constant if the bone spur is large enough or located in just the right spot. Contact between a bone spur and a spinal nerve can cause the following symptoms:

  • Local pain
  • Radiating pain
  • Tingling and numbness in the extremities
  • Muscle weakness

The location of radiating symptoms in the extremities depends on the region of the spine where the nerve compression is occurring. A cervical bone spur causes symptoms in the shoulders, arms and hands while a lumbar bone spur can affect the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.

Treating a bone spur

Many people diagnosed with a symptomatic bone spur can manage symptoms using a combination of conservative, nonsurgical treatments such as massage, physical therapy and medication. Surgery can become an option when weeks or months of conservative treatment do not bring an improvement in symptoms.

If you are considering surgery and have concerns about the risk of infection, long recovery period and scarring that can come with a hospital-based traditional open spine procedure, contact Laser Spine Institute. Our board-certified surgeons+ perform minimally invasive outpatient spine surgery that offers our patients a lower risk of complications, like infection, compared to traditional procedures.

To learn more, reach out to our dedicated team for a no-cost MRI review* to see if you may be a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery.