Spondylosis (from the Greek word spondulos, meaning vertebrae and the Latin/English suffix osis, meaning a process or condition) refers to the degeneration of the spine. It is also referred to as spinal osteoarthritis.
The condition can be used to describe degeneration in the neck (Cervical Spondylosis), the lower back (Lumbar Spondylosis) or the middle back (Thoracic Spondylosis).
Regardless of the specific location, Spondylosis, a chronic, degenerative condition, is closely associated with pain and the natural aging process, as it applies to the spine. It can also be caused by injury.
Spondylosis is a non-inflammatory degenerative condition that leads to the abnormal development of bone around the vertebrae and reduced mobility. The occurrence of symptoms is usually gradual and can be discerned by the incidence of tingling pain radiating down the arms and legs, limited motion and pain in the neck and upper back. The lumbar (lower back) and cervical (neck) spine are more frequently affected than the thoracic (middle back) spine, because curvature of the thoracic spine stops spondylosis from impinging on the spinal cord. Lumbar and cervical spondylosis have been known to frequently occur simultaneously in the same individual.
What Causes Spondylosis?
- Herniated and dehydrated discs: The spongy discs in the spine provide a cushion between the vertebrae and the backbone. As people age, those discs begin to shrink and lose fluidity, which can result in bone-on-bone contact, pain and discomfort. The exterior of the discs can also crack, which leads to bulging or herniated discs that press on the vertebrae and cause excruciating pain.
- Stiffness of ligaments: Throughout the body, ligaments connect the bones. Ligaments lose flexibility as we age, which can cause pain and discomfort.
- Bone spurs: Degeneration of discs sometimes results in the body producing additional bone as it attempts to compensate. The added bone, called spurs, can press on the spine and cause pain and a loss of neck flexibility.
Symptoms Associated With Spondylosis
- Neck Pain: The pain, while localized, could spill over to the shoulders and the base of the skull, making neck movement difficult and painful. The pain can also radiate down the arms to the hands and fingers. Pain may be intermittent, coming and going for no apparent reason.
- Headaches and Tingling: Because of pressure on the nerve roots, headaches can develop just above the neck and travel through the skull to the forehead. An irritation of the spinal nerve can result in a feeling of “pins and needles” in the arms and hands.
- Stiffness: The inability to fully turn the head or bend the neck limits both mobility and visibility (such as when driving). A grinding noise or sensation may also occur when the neck is turned.
Generally, the first step is a physical exam in which a spine specialist will test for movement and flexibility.
He or she may ask you to bend your head forward and move it side to side while exerting light downward pressure on the top of your head. Increased pain or numbness during this test is usually a sign that there is pressure on a nerve in your spine.
The next step is likely to be an X-ray of the neck, which will determine if arthritis is present, then perhaps an MRI if the pain is severe and you are experiencing weakness and numbness in your arms and legs.