Degenerative arthritis of the spine is also known as degenerative joint disease or spinal osteoarthritis or spondylitis.
Though degenerative joint disease can occur in any joint of the body, in the spinal column it results in a condition in which the protective cartilage that forms a cushion the spinal joints and discs in the neck (cervical spine) and lower back (lumbar spine) degenerates or wears down. This causes the spinal joint faces to rub together, causing swelling and pain.
Spinal osteoarthritis may also lead to the development of osteophytes or bone spurs. These spurs put pressure on the nerves leaving the spinal column, resulting in pain and weakness in the arms and legs. Arthritis of the spine is also responsible for spinal stenosis or narrowing of the spinal canal.
Spinal osteoarthritis, or spondylitis as it is commonly known, is caused by wear and tear. Joints wear out with age (joint cartilage loses water and weakens with time), and ageing is a major factor in the development of this condition. Other causes for the disorder are:
- Trauma or injury to the joint
- Genetic defect that involves cartilage
- Improper formation of the joint
How is spinal osteoarthritis diagnosed?
No single test can confirm arthritis of spine. The doctor conducts a physical exam and reads a person’s medical history to check for pain, stiffness, loss of motion, tenderness or signs or injury to surrounding tissues. Diagnosis is confirmed through tests such as:
- X-rays – An x-ray looks for loss of cartilage disc, bone damage or bone spurs.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – It shows narrowing of regions where spinal nerves exit or damage to spinal discs.
- Blood tests – These are done to rule out other diseases.
Though complete prevention of this disorder is impossible, steps can be taken by young and old to delay deterioration of spine.
- Maintaining a healthy weight – Extra weight increases the stress on spine, which is a weight-bearing area of the body. People who are obese are at a higher risk of developing spinal impairment of the upper back. Doctors also recommend weight loss to overweight patients already dealing with spinal osteoarthritis as a way to decrease pain caused by the condition. Weight loss and management can be achieved through a combination of exercise and diet control.
- Exercise – A physical therapist can guide a person through various exercises to help improve activity levels. These include:
- Exercise to keep joints and core muscles strong – Muscles that support the spine can be strengthened through low impact activities like swimming and biking.
- Exercises for stretching lower back and neck – A physical therapist can prescribe specific stretching exercises for the spine, legs and arms. These exercises are especially beneficial to individuals also dealing with obesity. Together with strengthening exercises, stretching workouts help to slow down the progression of the disease.
- Exercise to improve flexibility – Flexibility is gradually lost in osteoarthritis and yoga can help maintain it along with providing stretching benefits.
- Well balanced diet – A nutritional expert can chart out a diet programme that will help overweight and obese individuals lose the extra weight that puts strain on the spine.
- Correct posture while sitting and standing – A good posture keeps spine straight at all times and avoids slouching that causes strain on spinal joints and discs and increases friction between them. Over time, it can progress to spinal osteoarthritis.
- Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake – There exists a linkage between smoking and degeneration of cartilaginous discs that exist between the spinal vertebrae. Alcohol causes dehydration in the body, causes weight gain and disrupts other physiological processes.
- Preventing injuries – Injuries, especially sports injuries, can lead to the onset of spinal osteoarthritis. Thus, while it is important to stay physically active, care must be taken to not force the body beyond the point of fatigue. Regular strengthening and conditioning exercises help improve muscle stamina and ease stress on joints.
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