back pain osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis affecting more than 54 million people in the United States, mostly those who are middle-aged or older. It can affect any joint in the body, including the spine.

When osteoarthritis affects the spine, it is known as spondylosis. Some people with spondylosis may feel nothing, but others may have severe symptoms – including nerve damage or difficulty walking – that require surgical care.

Most people, however, have pain and stiffness in the neck or lower back, or they feel a pain that radiates into the shoulder or down the arm. Some may have pain that worsens throughout the day due to activity or have limited motion in their back.

Spondylosis is caused by the breakdown over time of the cartilage that protects and cushions the vertebrae (the bones that make up the spine). Eventually, as the cartilage wears away, the bones begin to rub against each other. This results in damage to the tissue and bone and causes pain.

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Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the cartilage that protects and cushions the joints breaks down over time. Eventually, the bones-formerly separated by the cartilage-rub against each other. This results in damage to the tissue and bone and causes painful joint symptoms.

Osteoarthritis is common in the joints of the spine, including the small facet joints and the large joints between the vertebrae.

The lower picture also shows flattened discs. This is a common part of aging in which the discs that cushion the bones of the spine lose fluid and can develop tiny cracks. When discs flatten, there is less space between the bones. This can make osteoarthritis worse and can also pinch the nerves that are near the spine.


Your primary care provider, or a spine specialist at UPMC Pinnacle’s Spine Care Center, is your first point of contact for back pain. They can evaluate your condition to see if further help is needed. If spondylosis is diagnosed, your doctor will likely start with non-invasive, non-surgical treatments. In most cases, the following can provide relief in a short time:

  • Over-the-Counter Medicines: Ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID) can reduce swelling and relieve the pain.
  • Prescription Medicines: Muscle relaxants can relieve the muscle spasm associated with spondylosis. A narcotic medication may be prescribed for the first several days for severe pain.
  • Steroid Injection: A steroid injection aims to relieve pain by reducing inflammation.
  • Low-Impact Exercises: Your doctor may also recommend low-impact exercises such as swimming or walking. These help with flexibility and strengthen the muscles that support the spine.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy may help stabilize the spine, build endurance, and increase flexibility.


Often, non-surgical treatments have an immediate effect in reducing pain and discomfort. However, a doctor may suggest surgery if symptoms are severe and persistent and if no other treatment has helped.

A person might need surgery if the condition results in serious numbness, weakness, loss of bowel or bladder control, or difficulty walking. As with any surgery, a patient’s age, overall health, and other issues are taken into consideration.

Spinal surgery generally attempts to relieve pressure on the nerves in the back due to osteoarthritis. The type of surgery depends on the underlying condition and its effect on the patient.

Osteoarthritis and spondylosis are becoming more common, but with conservative treatment, the pain and discomfort may be reduced or eliminated. If, however, you have more severe or worsening symptoms, spine surgery options exist to help you live an active, pain-free life.

To learn more about treatment options for back, neck, or spine pain, call 717-791-2630 or visit

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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