Types of Arthritis: Back and Spine Arthritis

By Lewis, Sarah, PharmD

Back pain is one of the most widespread medical problems in the United States, and arthritis is a common cause (Source: NIAMS). Your spine is an amazing system of bones (vertebrae), discs, muscles, ligaments, and nerves. It lets you stand up, bend over, and twist around, but much can go wrong in such a complicated structure. Back and spine arthritis can make it difficult to work and enjoy your favorite activities, and some types of arthritis can affect other areas of your body as well. Fortunately, there are ways you can prevent or reduce back and neck pain and disability due to back and spine arthritis. 

How Will I Know If I Have Back and Spine Arthritis?

When arthritis develops in your spine, the main symptoms are back or neck pain and stiffness. You may notice that your symptoms are worse when you’ve been inactive and tend to get better when you move or exercise. You may also have pain in areas near your spine, such as your buttocks and shoulders.

As arthritis progresses, you may lose flexibility in your spine, making it difficult to turn or twist your back or neck. You may even have trouble taking deep breaths and expanding your ribcage.

Your vertebrae protect your spinal cord and spinal nerves. With time, spinal arthritis can lead to compression of the spinal cord or nerves as the space inside your vertebrae narrows. This is called spinal stenosis. Symptoms of nerve involvement include:

  • Pain, weakness and numbness in your extremities

  • Unsteadiness and problems walking

  • Problems controlling your bladder and bowels

  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)

If you are having any of these symptoms, see your doctor. Your doctor will complete a medical history and physical exam and may order certain tests to help determine if you have back and spine arthritis. This may include blood tests and imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI, or CT scan.

Are There Different Types of Back and Spine Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of spine arthritis. OA is the result of wear and tear on your spine as you age. Your vertebrae and the discs in between each vertebra weaken and degenerate with time causing the symptoms of arthritis.

The following types of arthritis that can affect the spine are sometimes grouped together under the name spondyloarthritis (spondylo means vertebra):

  • Ankylosing spondylitis, which can cause some vertebrae in your back to fuse together

  • Reactive arthritis or Reiter’s syndrome, which is triggered by a reaction to an infection in another part of the body

  • Psoriatic arthritis, which occurs in some people who have a skin condition called psoriasis

  • Arthritis associated with inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis

Another form of arthritis that can affect the back or neck is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is an autoimmune disease that causes joint inflammation. RA and spondyloarthritis tend to be systemic diseases, meaning that they affect your whole body. If you have these forms of arthritis, you will likely have other symptoms, such as fatigue and flu-like symptoms.

Who Gets Back and Spine Arthritis?

The main risk factor for developing OA is age. It most often occurs in middle-aged and older people, but there are other risk factors including:

  • Overweight or obesity

  • Family history of arthritis

  • Past back injury or surgery

  • Repeated heavy lifting and overhead work

  • Smoking

You are more likely to get RA and spondyloarthritis if you are male, between the ages of 20 and 40 years, or are related to someone who has spondyloarthritis.

What Can Be Done to Remedy Back and Spine Arthritis?

The treatment goals for back and spine arthritis are to ease your symptoms, maintain or improve your range-of-motion, and strengthen your back and neck. To accomplish these goals, your doctor may recommend:

  • Physical therapy

  • Heat and cold therapy

  • Support devices such as elastic corsets and metal braces

  • Exercises to strengthen the muscles that support your spine

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)

  • Muscle relaxants

  • Corticosteroid and nerve block injections into your spine

Your Guide to Arthritis

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Treatments for any type of arthritis are largely the same.