What causes bone spurs?
The most common cause of bone spurs is osteoarthritis due to aging, and research has shown that after age 60, development of bone spurs in the spine is common. Osteoarthritis and other changes in the spine joints, or facet joints, result in increased friction against the bony surfaces. The body’s natural response is to protect these damaged surfaces by laying down new bony material, resulting in the formation of spurs. In addition to the aging process, other factors that can contribute to bone spur formation include:
- poor posture and sedentary lifestyle
- trauma, including falls and motor vehicle accidents
- genetic predisposition or family history
- disease or infection
- poor nutrition
What symptoms do bone spurs cause?
Bone spurs can cause different symptoms depending on where they occur and how much impingement they cause. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- dull ache or pain in the neck or back, especially when standing or walking
- pain, numbness or weakness that radiates into the buttocks and legs
- pain, numbness or weakness that radiates into the shoulders and arms
- bowel or bladder incontinence in extreme cases when those nerves are affected
Symptoms caused by bone spurs tend to become worse with physical activity and resolve, at least in part, with rest. When spurs occur in the lower (lumbar) spine, painful symptoms may be relieved by bending slightly forward at the waist, which can relieve the pressure caused by spurs.
Bone spurs can cause symptoms similar to other conditions, including herniated discs, bone infections, tumors and fractures. Having an in-depth physical exam is critical to ensuring you get the proper treatment for your condition. Digital imaging tests like x-rays or CT scans can show bone spurs and are typically ordered when more general symptoms are present to confirm the diagnosis.
How are bone spurs treated?
Unless they press against a nerve or other tissue or structure in the spine, bone spurs cause no symptoms and do not require treatments. In most cases, though, even asymptomatic spurs can begin to cause pain and other symptoms as they grow. Initially, conservative treatment will be ordered, including:
- physical therapy to improve flexibility and strength and relieve nerve pressure
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain and swelling
- corticosteroid injections into the epidural space around the affected joint to reduce pain and inflammation
If excess weight is contributing to joint problems, diet and exercise may also be prescribed to help relieve pressure and uneven strain on joints that could be contributing to the formation of bone spurs.
When conservative treatments don’t provide adequate resolution of pain and other symptoms, surgery may be considered. Laminectomy is the most common procedure used to treat bone spurs. In this procedure, the spurs are removed as well as some of the vertebra, widening the space where the nerves exit the spine and reliving pressure on those nerves. Laminectomy may also be performed in conjunction with spinal fusion, a procedure that uses rods or screws and often bone grafts to help stabilize a joint and prevent friction between the joint surfaces.
Although bone spurs may be a common side effect of the aging process, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer. If you’re having any symptoms of back or neck pain, there are many treatments that can help you feel better.