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While back pain is very common among the older population, in some cases it occurs due to the presence of arthritis, specifically osteoarthritis of the spine. This article outlines 10 signs that your back pain is caused by arthritis.

Arthritis, which is characterized by inflammation of joints, is composed of more than a 100 subtypes including osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, develops when the protective cartilage that cushions the top of bones deteriorates or wears down, leading to swelling and pain. Osteoarthritis can also cause the development of osteophytes (bone spurs).

In some cases, osteoarthritis can occur in the spine due to a breakdown of cartilage of joints and discs that are located in the neck and lower back. Osteoarthritis can also sometime produce spurs that add pressure on nerves that leave the spine, which causes pain in the arm or legs.

Osteoarthritis of the spine develops more often in older people, and thus age plays a huge role. However, young people who suffer an injury or trauma to a joint or have a genetic defect of cartilage can also develop the disease. Interestingly, in patients younger than 45 years old, osteoarthritis of the spine more commonly develops in females. On the other hand, in the population that is over the age of 45, osteoarthritis of the spine more commonly develops in males. Osteoarthritis is also more likely to strike overweight and obese people, as well as those with jobs or hobbies that cause repetitive stress to certain joints.

These are the 10 signs that your back pain may actually be osteoarthritis of the spine:

  1. You experience pain in the morning after you wake up. If your back is in pain the first thing when you wake up in the morning, then the pain can be caused by inflammation that is characteristic of arthritis. In the case of inflammation, it’s the nerves that cause pain and not the actual arthritic changes. Pain in this instance can also be caused by a herniated disc, which pushes out and hits against the nerves in your spinal cord. Unfortunately, herniated discs are common in patients with degenerative disc disease, which accompanies osteoarthritis of the spine.
  2. Your back pain in the morning lasts about half an hour and then goes away. In the case of arthritis, the pain is harsh in the morning and gets better as the day goes on, though it may feel worse again in the evening. However, it is important to keep in mind that pain in the evening can likely be the result of daily activities such as sitting all day at work or lifting things.
  3. Your pain is not just restricted to the back, but also other body parts. While it may begin simply as back pain, as osteoarthritis of the spine progresses, significant wear and tear of the spine can cause pinching or compressing of the spinal cords and the attached nerves. Since these nerves are connected to different parts of the body, you may feel pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in various regions of the body such as your hips, legs and feet.
  4. Your spine feels very stiff. If you wake up in the morning and don’t experience back pain but instead feel stiffness of the back, that can also signal the presence of osteoarthritis of the spine. As the day goes on, most people will find that the stiffness wears off as you walk around. However, the pain can come back at night as the joints are stressed from activities of the day.
  5. You feel pain when trying to move your back. In particular, if you feel significant pain when you bend over or arch your back, that could be sign of osteoarthritis of the spine.
  6. Your pain migrates. If one day you feel pain in the shoulder, and the next day in the neck, then that could indicate the presence of arthritis.
  7. Your pain keeps worsening. Everybody with arthritis of the spine experiences different levels of pain depending on how far their disease has progressed. Doctors recommend that you go see them if your back pain comes and goes for more than four to six weeks as most pulled muscles and other injuries slowly heal over that time frame. However, if the pain keeps worsening and persisting, that is a big sign that you have arthritis of the spine. Therefore, in that case, you should see a doctor.
  8. Your back pain eases when you lie down. Most patients with arthritis will feel better and their back pain will be relieved when they lie down.
  9. Your back pain interferes with your daily activities. Some patients might not experience significant challenges in daily activities while others might be severely disabled. If you are experiencing challenges in carrying out everyday activities, then it is time to go see a doctor.
  10. Your pain disrupts the amount of sleep you get. Back pain can be very damaging if it keeps you up at night and away from sleep because the pain can actually worsen if you don’t get enough sleep and relax. However, if you are not sleeping due to the back pain, then there is no way for it to subside and go down. Hence, doctors suggest that if your back pain is keeping you up at night, then it is time to seek medical attention.

  • Flor, Herta, and Dennis C. Turk. "Chronic back pain and rheumatoid arthritis: predicting pain and disability from cognitive variables." Journal of behavioral medicine 11.3 (1988): 251-265.
  • Hoy, Damian, et al. "A systematic review of the global prevalence of low back pain." Arthritis & Rheumatism 64.6 (2012): 2028-2037.
  • Gellhorn, Alfred C., Jeffrey N. Katz, and Pradeep Suri. "Osteoarthritis of the spine: the facet joints." Nature Reviews Rheumatology 9.4 (2013): 216.
  • Borenstein, David. "Does osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine cause chronic low back pain?." Current pain and headache reports 8.6 (2004): 512-517.
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