Your guide to understanding spondylosis
If you have been diagnosed with spondylosis, you are most likely wanting a clear explanation of the condition. After all, there are many definitions of spondylosis, ranging from spinal osteoarthritis to degenerative disc disease, so how can you be sure of exactly how this condition will affect your health?
Before you begin researching the different types of spondylosis, it’s important to understand exactly what this term means. Spondylosis is a general medical term that is used to describe various forms of spinal degeneration that accompany the natural aging process. In some cases, physicians also use the term more specifically to describe the presence of spinal osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease. You should ask your doctor about your specific type of spondylosis so you can begin understanding what may have caused your condition and the treatment options available to you.
Spondylosis causes and risk factors
In most cases, spondylosis results from the cumulative effects of ongoing wear and tear on the spine. However, there are a number of risk factors that can increase your likelihood to develop spondylosis. These risk factors include obesity, genetic predisposition, a history of traumatic injuries and participation in high-impact sports.
Specifically, spondylosis occurs when the soft tissues in the spinal anatomy — the spinal discs, tendons, muscles, ligaments and cartilage that lines the facet joints — naturally deteriorate over time. For instance, the spinal discs, which are normally saturated with water, can become dehydrated and lose their effectiveness as cushions between the vertebrae. The cartilage in the facet joints can gradually wear away, resulting in bone-on-bone contact between the joints. This friction can cause inflammation and trigger the body’s natural protective responses, including the production of smooth bony deposits (bone spurs or osteophytes) in the affected areas. Additionally, the muscles that support the spine can weaken, while ligaments and tendons can thicken, tighten and stiffen.
Spondylosis is also used to refer specifically to spinal osteoarthritis, which is a common result of the natural aging process. Osteoarthritis is an age-related condition that is characterized by the deterioration of the cartilage that covers the joints in the body, including the spinal facet joints. These joints, which are located between the individual vertebrae, serve an important function in providing the spine with essential range of motion, allowing it to bend, twist and flex. The cartilage, a smooth, rubbery tissue that covers the ends of the bones in the joints, reduces friction and helps the bones to glide smoothly over each other. When the cartilage breaks down, painful joint damage can occur.
Some people experience more degenerative changes related to spondylosis than others, but most have at least some signs of spinal deterioration that are readily apparent in an X-ray, MRI or CT scan by the age of 40. These findings might include bulging or herniated discs, as well as bone spur formations or calcium deposits in the vertebrae affected by degeneration.
The spine consists of 33 vertebrae, 24 of which are individually stacked to create the cervical (upper), thoracic (middle) and lumbar (lower) regions, while nine fused vertebrae make up the sacrum and coccyx (tailbone). Spondylosis, which can be diagnosed in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions, is often classified by its location:
- Cervical spondylosis. Affects the seven cervical vertebrae (C1-C7) that make up the neck region; deterioration is common is this area, mainly because these vertebrae are highly mobile and support the weight of the head
- Thoracic spondylosis. Affects the 12 thoracic vertebrae (T1-T12); deterioration in the middle back is relatively uncommon because the spine in this area is connected to and supported by the ribcage
- Lumbar spondylosis. Affects the five lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5); degeneration is prevalent in this area of the spine because the vertebrae in the lower back support the majority of the body’s weight and facilitate a wide range of motion
- Multilevel spondylosis. Affects the spinal components in more than one region
Common spondylosis symptoms
You may have spondylosis and not experience any symptoms. In fact, this condition can go undetected unless the facet joints become painfully stiff or the spinal cord or an exiting nerve root is irritated or compressed by a bone spur or displaced disc material.
When caused by nerve compression, spondylosis symptoms can vary based on the severity and location of the neural pressure. For instance, a compressed nerve root in the cervical (neck) region can produce symptoms in the upper back, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers. On the other hand, if the sciatic nerve in the lumbar region is compressed, radiating symptoms may be felt throughout the lower back, buttocks, legs, feet and toes. Independent of location, some of the most common general spondylosis symptoms include:
- Localized pain in the affected area of the neck or back
- Numbness or loss of sensation
- Muscle weakness
- Traveling pain, numbness and tingling
When caused by spinal osteoarthritis, spondylosis symptoms are usually associated with neck and back movements and exhibit as:
- Facet joint warmth and stiffness
- Localized aching in the neck or back
- Reduced range of motion in the spine
These symptoms are often worse in the morning or after you wake up, but it’s common for them to improve slightly as you get out of bed and start to move about. Some patients have difficulties standing up or develop a “hunched” posture.
Many patients are able to find sufficient relief from their spondylosis symptoms by using one or more conservative treatments. Rather than addressing the underlying cause of the symptoms, conservative treatments are designed to manage discomfort. For this purpose, over-the-counter and prescription medications can be very effective.
Some medications often recommended by physicians to relieve spondylosis symptoms include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, which can relieve pain (but do not address inflammation)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, which can reduce inflammation that is causing pain
- Prescription pain relievers, which can address severe pain that does not respond to over-the-counter medications
- Facet joint injections, which numb pain in arthritic joints and can also help physicians to locate which joints are causing the worst pain
- Epidural steroid injections, which can reduce severe inflammation around a compressed nerve root while temporarily numbing the area
Because your spondylosis symptoms are causing you discomfort and you probably would prefer to rest, engaging in physical activity and exercising might seem a bit counterintuitive. However, a physical therapist can recommend a course of targeted stretches and exercises, which can be very beneficial in enhancing the strength and flexibility of the spine and its supporting muscles. This, in turn, can facilitate a greater range of motion and healing. You may also find relief through alternative treatments like yoga and acupuncture. Of course, one or two days of taking it easy is generally acceptable if pain prohibits regular activity, but you should keep in mind that remaining inactive for too long can actually be harmful, possibly resulting in decreased circulation, joint stiffening and blood clots.
Surgery for spondylosis
If spondylosis symptoms are debilitating or persist after several weeks or months of conservative treatment, surgery may be recommended. However, patients who are considering surgical intervention should be aware that a highly invasive open spine procedure is not the only avenue to relief. Some patients are candidates for the advanced minimally invasive spine surgery performed by the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute. Our skilled surgeons perform these procedures on an outpatient basis, so most of our patients are able to go home within hours of their surgery.^
Contact Laser Spine Institute to find out how our minimally invasive procedures have helped many patients find meaningful relief from the symptoms of spondylosis. We offer a no-cost MRI review* to help you determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.