Osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis

By Michael Perry, M.D.

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of spinal stenosis, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Further research shows that osteoarthritis affects up to 30 million Americans, making it the most prevalent form of arthritis. In fact, medical experts predict that, by 2030, 20 percent of all Americans will be at risk for developing osteoarthritis, and, as result, they also will be at risk for developing spinal stenosis.

Generally speaking, osteoarthritis is a condition that comes with age. So, if you’re experiencing the pain and stiffness of aging, or if you have received a diagnosis of osteoarthritis and/or spinal stenosis, it’s important to understand how these conditions occur, how they are related, what their symptoms are and what treatments are available.

Defining osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis

Medical experts define each condition as follows:

  • Osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that affects the weight-bearing joints, including the hips, knees, feet and the joints of the spine. The word osteoarthritis is derived from “osteo,” which means bone, and “arthros,” which means a joint and its attachments.
  • Spinal stenosis. Stenosis is a narrowing or constriction of the nerve passageways in the spine, often caused by age-related conditions like osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease and herniated discs.

Both conditions are related to general wear of the human body that happens with age. The spine is especially vulnerable because it has to support the weight of the upper body while being able to bend and flex for basic movement. The joints of the spine are protected by cartilage and lubricating synovial fluid to enable smooth motion.

Over time, the protective cartilage between joints can wear out, and bone starts to rub against bone — the resulting inflammation and symptoms are diagnosed as arthritis. The result of osteoarthritis is pain, inflammation and the development of outgrowths known as bone spurs, or osteophytes. Bone spurs can grow on just about any joint, including on the facet joints, which are the joints of the spine. If bone spurs cause a narrowing of the spinal canal or a nerve root exit and put pressure on nerve roots, it would be identified as spinal stenosis.

Treating these conditions

Not everyone ends up being affected by osteoarthritis or spinal stenosis. But, as you age, you may want to consider some lifestyle changes that can slow down the development of either condition. Getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, using proper body mechanics and assuming a better posture can promote healthier joints.

If you are diagnosed with spinal arthritis or spinal stenosis, most doctors will initially recommend treating symptoms with conservative, nonsurgical methods. These may include:

  • Nonprescription anti-inflammatory medications
  • Prescription pain medication
  • Back bracing
  • Low-impact exercise such as walking or swimming
  • Weight loss
  • Epidural steroid injections
  • Surgery

If your symptoms from spinal stenosis have become persistent and are restricting your work, lifestyle and ability to spend time with your family, you and your doctor may start to explore surgery. Traditional open back surgery typically involves a large incision, overnight hospitalization and a lengthy recovery time. At Laser Spine Institute, we offer minimally invasive outpatient procedures that are alternatives to traditional open spine surgery. Our procedures use a less than 1-inch incision to access the spine, helping our patients avoid hospital-associated costs and a lengthy recovery period.^

We would be happy to provide you with a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a candidate for outpatient surgery at Laser Spine Institute.

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