Arthritis is a condition that can affect people of all ages. It results in pain and swelling in the joints, which can cause limited mobility. Over 100 types of arthritis can affect any joint in the body, including the back.

Approximately 58.5 million adults in the United States have received a diagnosis of arthritis. The likelihood of developing the condition increases with age.

In this article, we examine the treatments for back arthritis, including medications, exercise and physical therapy, surgery, and lifestyle adjustments. We also explore how to live with arthritis in the back.

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Various over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can help manage the pain and inflammation of back arthritis.

OTC medications

OTC medications are medications anyone can obtain from a store without a prescription.

Doctors frequently recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) as a first attempt to relieve back arthritis pain. Common examples of NSAIDs include aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil).

Analgesic medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), is available over the counter. It eases pain but may not help with inflammation. This medication may be gentler on the stomach than NSAIDs. However, taking too much may damage the liver, so a person should limit their intake according to the label instructions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a recent study evaluating individuals taking OTC medications for osteoarthritis suggests these people experienced less pain due to the medication.

Prescription medications

Doctors can prescribe the following pain medications for arthritis:

  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These drugs can slow down or reduce inflammation levels. They are usually most suitable for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis but may help with any inflammatory form of arthritis.
  • Biologics: A stronger and more expensive type of DMARD, biologics may make a person more susceptible to infection.
  • Opioids: These are strong pain relievers and are primarily helpful in treating severe pain. There is a risk of opioid addiction for some people who take them frequently. As a result, doctors prescribe them less often than they used to.

Corticosteroid injections

A person may receive corticosteroid shots in a doctor’s office. A doctor will deliver the shot, which may temporarily reduce pain and swelling, into the affected back joint.

If radiology services are available, a doctor may use a form of X-ray imaging called fluoroscopy to help deliver the shot.

Creams

Pain-relieving creams are available that may help manage arthritis pain.

A 2019 study investigated whether topical creams were helpful for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. The study suggests they may be effective and safe in the short term but do not provide long-term benefits.

According to the CDC, regular physical activity may reduce arthritis pain just as much as OTC medications.

Low level exercise may help reduce stiffness, strengthen back muscles, and increase a person’s range of motion. Exercising may also help improve mood. Research suggests that even 10–30 minutes of exercise can benefit a person’s mood.

Low level activities include:

  • walking
  • low impact aerobics
  • cycling
  • swimming

A 2016 study concluded that participating in strength and walking exercises can help improve lower back problems.

A physical therapist can recommend exercises to reduce back pain. These exercises usually also help strengthen back and core muscles.

A person may qualify for surgery for back arthritis if symptoms are severe or do not reduce with medication, exercise, and physical therapy. In addition, doctors may consider surgery if a person is experiencing neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness or bladder dysfunction due to arthritis.

Surgical options for a person with back arthritis include the following:

  • Arthroscopy: This is a minimally invasive procedure. A surgeon makes small incisions and inserts small tools to scrape away damaged parts of the joint that lead to pain.
  • Spinal cord decompression surgery, or laminectomy: A person’s spine may become compressed if they have severe arthritis in the back. Surgeons can decompress the spinal cord and nerves by removing a small section of the spinal cord to reduce pressure.
  • Spinal fusion: This involves fusing two small parts of the spinal cord to strengthen and stabilize the spine.

People with arthritis may need to make lifestyle adjustments to manage pain and inflammation.

Arthritis may affect several aspects of a person’s life. Research suggests that it may reduce a person’s ability to carry out the following:

  • self-care routines
  • domestic tasks
  • leisure activities
  • labor tasks

Making the following lifestyle adjustments may benefit people with back arthritis:

  • Work changes: People can inform their employer of their situation and request adjustments to make them more comfortable at work. These may include working from home more frequently or using a supportive chair. An occupational therapist can suggest equipment to reduce stress on the back while working.
  • Eating healthily: Consuming a balanced diet can help with overall health.
  • Maintaining a moderate weight: Reaching or maintaining a moderate weight can reduce pressure on the joints, which may lessen mobility problems.
  • Exercising: This can help strengthen muscles and joints, increase mobility, reduce stiffness, and boost energy levels. It may also help a person maintain a moderate weight.
  • Home adaptations: People can make various adjustments at home, such as placing things on lower shelves and ensuring they use the handrail on the stairs.
  • Stopping smoking, if applicable: Quitting smoking can help optimize health, allowing medications to work properly.
  • Adjusting posture: This can help reduce pressure on the spine and may relieve some arthritis pain.

Back arthritis is manageable with the appropriate treatment methods, which may include lifestyle adjustments and the use of assistive devices such as a walking stick.

Some people only require OTC pain relief, while others may need prescription medications. If medication stops working, a person should contact a doctor.

Additionally, regular exercise that includes short, low impact physical activities daily may help reduce back pain. A physical therapist or doctor can provide exercise recommendations.

The CDC lists various community-based physical activity programs and self-management education workshops that may improve the quality of life of individuals living with arthritis.

The outlook for a person with back arthritis is positive. The condition is generally manageable with medication and home remedies.

Surgery may be necessary for some people with back arthritis.

Arthritis in the back is manageable using medications, physical therapy, exercise, and other home remedies.

A person with back arthritis may need to make various lifestyle and dietary adaptations to help reduce symptoms.

Sometimes, a person may require surgery if nonsurgical methods do not reduce their symptoms or they are experiencing severe pain.