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Spinal Arthritis: Symptoms

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How Do I Know If I Have Arthritis in My Spine?
Generally, the signs and symptoms of arthritis include inflammation, stiffness, and pain in the joints. In the spine, symptoms may also include one or more of the following:

  • Back pain that comes and goes
  • Spinal stiffness in the morning, such as after getting out of bed or after activity; often, this pain decreases with rest or, for some, after exercise.
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness in the neck
  • Lower back pain that runs down into the buttocks, thighs, or pelvic area, sciatica
  • Pain or tenderness in the shoulders, hips, knees, or heels
  • A crunching feeling or sound of bone rubbing on bone
  • Weakness or numbness in legs or arms
  • Limited range of motion, difficulty bending, or walking
  • Spinal deformity

If your back pain is severe, it is a good idea to visit your doctor. He or she will ask you about the history of your pain. Be sure to talk to your doctor about when the pain started, when it feels better or worse, how long it lasts and what you have done to relieve the pain. Also, make sure you inform your doctor about any other health problems you are experiencing or have had in the past.

Your doctor will then examine your back. You may be asked to do a few simple exercises so your doctor can see if your range of motion has been affected. These exercises may include bending forward, side-to-side, or backwards. You may also be asked to lie down and raise your legs. Be sure to tell your doctor when or if any of these exercises causes pain.

The symptoms of arthritis, especially in the spine, are similar to other spinal conditions. Therefore, it is important for your doctor to rule out other, possibly more serious problems. To do this, you may need to undergo a variety of tests.

  • Blood tests: These will help determine the type of arthritis.
  • X-rays: These tests can show the structure of the vertebrae and the outlines of joints and can help determine if there has been any deterioration of cartilage.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test gives a 3-dimensional view of parts of the back and can show the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding spaces.
  • Computerized tomography (CT scan): This test shows the shape and size of the spinal canal, its contents, and structures surrounding it. It shows bone better than nerve tissue.
  • Bone scan: This test uses injected radioactive material that attaches itself to bone. A bone scan can detect arthritis but may not be able to differentiate it from other disorders. Therefore, bone scans are usually performed along with other tests.
  • Myelogram: A liquid dye is injected into the spinal column and appears white against bone on an x-ray film. A myelogram can show pressure on the spinal cord or nerves from herniated discs, bone spurs, or tumors.

What Do I Do Now?
If your doctor determines that you have arthritis in your spine, there are a number of treatment options. Keep in mind, there is no cure for arthritis, but you can treat the pain and discomfort using medications, physical therapy, exercise, heat/cold therapy, and rest. Your doctor will talk to you about these options and together you can develop a treatment plan that works for you.


pills, drugs


Arthritis is not a death sentence. In fact, many people who have arthritis continue to live active and productive lives. Educating yourself about your condition and managing your symptoms are the keys to not letting arthritis slow you down. Check out the links below for more information on how arthritis can be treated and tips on living with arthritis.

Updated on: 07/21/11
Harry N. Herkowitz, MD
Just because you have spinal arthritis does not mean you will live a restricted lifestyle. Many people with arthritis have minimal symptoms. If you have activity-related back pain relieved by rest, it is likely that arthritis exists. More concerning symptoms are those of significant rest or night pain or leg(s) numbness, pain or burning. See your doctor if these symptoms are present.
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