Spinal arthritis is a type of osteoarthritis that affects the joints of the spine. Learn the symptoms and treatment for this degenerative joint disease as well as some nutritional approaches to keep you comfortable and active.

Spinal arthritis is a type of arthritis that affects the joints of the spine. It is also known as osteoarthritis of the spine, degenerative arthritis of the spine (as in degenerative joint disease), or spondylosis.

As with all types of osteoarthritis, spinal arthritis involves the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions and protects the joints. In particular, cartilage breakdown occurs in the facet (or vertebral) joints of the spine. This type of arthritis often happens with age but can also be the result of an injury or trauma, and is seen more frequently in athletes or workers who put repetitive stress on the joints of the spine.

The facet joints connect the vertebrae at the back of the spine, allowing us to stretch, twist, and bend. When the cartilage in these joints breaks down, it can cause symptoms that include stiffness, reduced flexibility, decreased range of motion, and pain.

The pain of spinal arthritis can be slight or severe, and may stay close to the spine or radiate out along the affected nerves to the neck, shoulders, arms, buttocks, and upper legs. Additional symptoms may include weakness, cramping, or numbness in the arms and legs. In severe cases, such as in spinal stenosis (when the spinal canal becomes narrowed), there can be a loss of bladder and/or bowel control.

Treatment for spinal arthritis is similar to that for all types of osteoarthritis and may include medication to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, and physical therapy to strengthen the back muscles, maintain flexibility and range of motion, and prevent disability. In some cases surgery may be necessary to reduce the pressure on parts of the spine.

In addition, regular physical exercise that feels good to your body can be key. Gentle aerobic activity, such as walking and swimming, enhances cardiovascular fitness and maintains mobility in the major joints. Strengthening exercises, such as light hand weights, resistance bands, yoga, and pilates, build and maintain lean muscle mass and improve balance. Check your local community center for wellness classes and even water workouts. Both aerobic and strengthening exercises help you maintain a healthy weight.

Though there is no official diet for arthritis of the spine, the same general guidance for osteoarthritis holds true. Being overweight or obese may add to the pressure and inflammation in the joints so achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important in spinal arthritis, as it is for all types of osteoarthritis. In addition, the following “lifehacks” can help introduce pain relief in common daily activities:

  • To avoid straining and cramping, use headphones instead of cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder
  • If you spend much of the day sitting, schedule movement breaks and do some light stretching to maintain fluidity and mobility
  • If your work or play consists of repetitive movements, introduce relaxation breaks to give stressed joints a rest, and
  • Try out some of these anti-inflammatory home remedies