Osteophytes, known colloquially as bone spurs, are bone growths that occur on the facet joints of the spine. Though osteophytes are often painless, these growths sometimes compress nerves in the spinal region, resulting in numbness, pain, and stiffness in the legs, back, and feet.
Do you suspect that you are suffering from pain as a result of bone spurs? Read on to learn more about causes, diagnosis, and treatment options for individuals suffering from bone spurs.
What Causes Bone Spurs?
Bone spurs form gradually over time. They generally result from age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis. As such, bone spurs are frequently seen in adults over 60 years of age. Spinal arthritis may cause pain and stiffness in the lower back. As the cartilage between the facet joints breaks down, the joints may begin to rub against one another, forming bone spurs. Though good posture and a healthy lifestyle may delay the onset of spinal problems, many individuals are genetically predisposed to developing osteoarthritis. These individuals should monitor their back pain symptoms and contact their doctors if problems arise.
For some individuals, spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease may trigger bone spurs. Bone spurs in the neck may form as a result of cervical spondylosis or other spinal injuries. In short, bone spurs may result from many spinal conditions. Individuals cannot easily prevent osteophytes; in most cases, however, bone spurs will not result in any discomfort.
Do Bone Spurs Cause Back Pain?
Contrary to their name, bone spurs are not actually sharp “spurs” poking at the spine. Instead, these bony growths are generally smooth. Though over half of the population over the age of 60 has bone spurs, most of these individuals will not experience pain directly related to the osteophytes.
In some cases, however, bone spurs may result in back pain. The osteophytes may cause the facet joints to become inflamed, resulting in pain and irritation in the back or neck. The spurs may also press on nerves, resulting in pain throughout the back and legs. Some of these symptoms may also be connected to related health conditions, such as osteoarthritis or spondylosis, and may not be caused by the bone spurs themselves.
Bone spurs can occur in the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (mid-back), or lumbar spine (lower back). Signs and symptoms of osteophytes will differ depending on where the spurs have formed along the spinal column.
Common symptoms of bone spurs include:
- aches and pains in the back and neck, especially when moving
- dull, radiating pain in the buttocks and thighs (caused by bone spurs in back)
- headaches and radiating pain in the shoulders (caused by bone spurs in neck)
- pain related to nerve compression (detailed below)
In some cases, bone spurs will compress nerves along the spinal column. If this occurs, the pain may become more severe. Numbness and tingling may occur throughout the limbs.
If a bone spur is pressing on a nerve, you may experience:
- numbness in the limbs
- pain in the back, neck, and/or limbs
- feelings of weakness in the limbs
- rarely, other neurological symptoms, such as loss of bladder control or other serious conditions
Note that many of these symptoms overlap with symptoms caused by other spinal conditions. To ensure proper treatment, consult your doctor regarding your spinal pain.
Diagnosing Bone Spurs
Before treating you for bone spur pain, your doctor will probably run one or more diagnostic tests to identify any bone spurs, spinal cord problems, or other spinal conditions. These diagnostic tests will assist your doctor in determining whether your pain is caused by spinal cord compression, nerve pain, or something else entirely.
A few of the most common tests used to diagnose bone spurs include:
- X-Rays/Radiography – An x-ray may be performed to get a basic look at the spinal area. Radiography can determine if spinal degeneration has occurred and whether bone spurs have formed.
- Electromyography (EMG) Tests – If a doctor suspects nerve problems, he or she may recommend an electromyography test. This test can detect nerve problems along the spine, aiding in the diagnostic process.
- Myelography Tests – A myelography test requires an injection of a contrast medium into the spinal column. After the injection, multiple x-rays are taken to detect problems with the spine or spinal cord.
- MRI and CT Scans – CT and MRI scans can also be used to get a better view of the spinal column. These scans are generally coupled with other tests to aid in the diagnostic process.
By performing these tests, your doctor should be able to determine whether a bone spur or another condition is causing your symptoms. Though bone spurs may appear in these diagnostic tests, further investigation may be needed before bone spurs can be diagnosed as the source of the problem. Scheduling an appointment with a spinal specialist is the best first step to identifying and treating bone spurs.
Managing and Treating Bone Spurs and Related Conditions
In most cases, spinal bone spurs and related pain can be managed through a variety of non-surgical treatment options.
• Resting and stretching can improve pain, particularly when it is caused by bone spurs in the lower spine. Older patients may also find it easier to walk with a cane or a walker, as a bent-over position often relieves lumbar spinal pain.
• Chiropractic treatment can sometimes reduce bone spur pain. Improved flexibility and reduced compression in the back may ultimately relieve the nerve pain caused by some spinal spurs.
• If your bone spurs are frequently painful, your doctor may prescribe medication for you. Anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants can help ease the pain caused by osteophytes. These drugs, however, are ideally used only on a short-term basis.
• Steroid injections may also be used to treat some conditions related to bone spurs. Injections may reduce severe swelling and inflammation around the facet joints, reducing pain in the back, neck, and limbs. For temporary pain relief, steroid injections may be useful.
• Spinal surgery is generally viewed as a last resort treatment option for bone spurs. If nerve pain is constant and severe, however, bone spur removal is a valid treatment option. A laminectomy, for instance, may be performed to remove the osteophyte that is compressing the nerve. Like most surgeries, bone spur removal comes with risks and complications. Consider trying as many non-surgical remedies as possible before undergoing surgery.
Though most individuals with bone spurs will not suffer from any major symptoms, some individuals may experience nerve compression and radiating pain as a result of osteophyte formation.
Most individuals with bone spur pain can find relief through non-surgical treatment options. By talking to your doctor, you can discover the best treatment options for you.