Spinal arthritis includes a range of degenerative conditions affecting the joints in the spine. The condition may cause swelling and pain. Imaging scans may also show changes to the bone structure.

In people over the age of 60, 95% of men and 70% of women show evidence of spinal arthritis on radiographic scans.

Arthritis in the spine can cause various symptoms that may not always be visible. In addition, medical imaging tests may not indicate the severity of pain a person experiences. So a doctor looks at both factors and others to confirm a diagnosis.

Spondylosis is the medical term for osteoarthritis that affects the spine.

Read on to learn more about what arthritis in the spine looks like and how it can feel.

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People with arthritis of the spine may have changes in their gait and posture, which might include:

  • a stooped posture
  • stiff, slow movements
  • mobility problems
  • limping, slow walking, or an unusual pace to their walk

There may also be swelling around the affected joints.

Imaging tests

Medical imaging shows certain hallmarks, or characteristics, of arthritis in the spine, including:

  • narrowing of joint spaces that is uneven and not distributed across all joints
  • the growth of bone spurs, which are lumps that grow in joints
  • cysts along the joints
  • degeneration of the joints
  • synovitis, which is inflammation of the synovium inside a joint

The severity of symptoms on imaging scans does not necessarily correlate with the severity of a person’s pain or other symptoms.

Doctors use several types of imaging tests to produce images of the spine. These include:

  • Plain radiographs, using X-ray techniques: This is the most common technique for assessing disease in bones and back pain.
  • Computerized tomography (CT): This is a more precise technique that can reveal atypical changes in bone structures of the entire spine.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This technique examines changes to the soft tissue and the spine. It is beneficial in diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

CT and MRIs are more advanced methods of imaging the spine. Other methods, such as electromyography and nerve conduction studies, can be beneficial.

Many different types of arthritis can affect the spine. They include:

  • Spondyloarthritis: This is an umbrella term for any arthritis type that affects the spine and other joints or junctions where tendons and ligaments attach to bone.
  • Osteoarthritis: This is the most common type of arthritis and spinal arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when wear and tear cause the cartilage to break down steadily, reducing the cushioning around a joint.
  • RA: This chronic, progressive autoimmune disease causes joint pain and systemic health problems. It can affect the spine, but symptoms often first appear in the hands.

Other types of arthritis may also affect the spine, so it is important to see a rheumatologist to get the right treatment.

In rare cases, arthritis can appear as a symptom of an infection in a joint. This is known as septic arthritis. A person who experiences sudden pain along with a fever or other symptoms of illness should promptly seek medical care.

Spinal arthritis can affect the whole body. It can cause:

  • chronic back pain
  • mobility impairments, such as the ability to walk comfortably
  • long-term disability, such as the ability to play sports, sleep comfortably, or sit for long periods.

Spinal arthritis may lead to additional complications, such as:

Pain is subjective, and no two people with arthritis have the same experience. Moreover, different types of arthritis cause different symptoms. For example, RA typically begins in the hands and can lead to systemic symptoms, including cardiovascular disease.

For most people, the hallmarks of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness. Arthritis is distinct from many other types of pain because the pain concentrates in the joints, not nearby muscles.

Some common experiences of arthritis include:

  • stiffness and pain that may be worse in the morning
  • pain that originates in the joints but may radiate elsewhere in the body
  • pain that makes certain motions painful or impossible

Another characteristic that distinguishes some types of arthritis from other forms of pain is that arthritis can affect many different joints, including joints that are not close together. For example, a person might have arthritis in a few joints in the spine and in the hands.

People may also notice joint swelling, especially with RA. This is not typical of other forms of chronic back pain.

Arthritis of the lower spine is lumbar arthritis, affecting the lowest joints of the spine. It tends to cause symptoms such as:

  • low back pain
  • pain in the buttocks and thighs
  • pain that radiates to the knee
  • muscle spasms

A person may notice stiffness when sitting and walking or find that certain movements in the lower body feel painful or even impossible.

People should seek medical help if they have:

  • unexplained chronic pain or pain after an injury that does not heal
  • stiff or painful joints
  • trouble walking, sitting, or moving
  • any side effects from arthritis medication
  • arthritic symptoms that seem to be worsening

Arthritis in the spine can affect movement, sitting, and many daily functions. Osteoarthritis, the most common form, tends to occur in older people due to age-related joint degeneration. Several treatments may help ease symptoms, and early intervention may slow the progression.

Experts may use various methods to look at the spine to diagnose arthritis. These might include radiographs and more advanced techniques such as CT and MRIs. However, scans may not always correlate with the severity of pain the person is experiencing.

A person cannot diagnose osteoarthritis based on symptoms or appearance alone, so it is important to see a health professional for any pain that does not go away or worsens.