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Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and affects middle-aged or older people most frequently. It is caused by the breakdown of cartilage in joints and can occur in almost any joint in the body. It most commonly affects the hips, knees, hands, lower back and neck. Cartilage is a firm, rubbery material that covers the ends of bones in normal joints. It serves as a kind of “shock absorber,” helping to reduce friction in the joints.
When osteoarthritis affects the spine, it is known as spondylosis. Spondylosis is a degenerative disorder that can cause loss of normal spinal structure and function. Although aging is the primary cause, the location and rate of degeneration varies per person. Spondylosis can affect the cervical, thoracic and/or lumbar regions of the spine, with involvement of the intervertebral discs and facet joints. This can lead to disc degeneration and bone spurs (also known as osteophytes), which can pinch nerves that are near the discs or spurs.
As spondylosis worsens, progressive narrowing due to osteophyte growth may cause spinal stenosis — a narrowing of spaces in the spine that results in pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerve roots. When this compression occurs, it can cause impaired function and pain. The narrowing can affect a small or large area of the spine. Pressure on the upper part of the spinal cord may produce pain or numbness in the shoulders and arms. Pressure on the lower part of the spinal cord or on nerve roots branching out from that area may cause pain or numbness in the legs.
When spondylosis affects the lumbar spine, several vertebrae are usually involved. Because the lumbar spine carries most of the body’s weight, activity or periods of inactivity can both trigger symptoms. Specific movements, such as sitting for prolonged periods of time, lifting or bending, may increase pain.
Degenerative spondylolisthesis (slippage of one vertebra over another) is caused by osteoarthritis of the facet joints. Most commonly, it involves the L4 slipping over the L5 vertebra. It most frequently affects people age 50 and older. Symptoms may include pain in the low back, thighs and/or legs, muscle spasms, weakness and/or tight hamstring muscles.
While the cause of osteoarthritis is unknown, the following factors may increase the risk of developing the condition:
- Being overweight
- Joint injury
- Nerve injury
- Repeated overuse of specific joints
- Lack of physical activity
- Pain and stiffness in the neck or low back
- Pain that radiates into the shoulder or down the arm
- Weakness or numbness in one or both arms
- Pain or morning stiffness that lasts for about 30 minutes due to inactivity
- Pain that worsens throughout the day due to activity
- Limited motion