Spondylosis, or disc degeneration, is a general term for age-related “wear and tear” of the spinal column. The spinal column is made up of 24 mobile vertebrae, each separated by a shock-absorbing disc.
As a person ages the discs lose water and become thinner. Older discs may become torn and slip out of place, which can press on spinal nerves and cause pain. Also, thinner disc space causes decreased flexibility and increased friction between vertebrae. Bones and ligaments become enlarged as they try to compensate for the changes.
Lumbar and cervical spondylosis can be caused by age-related changes, although injury, arthritis and osteoporosis can instigate or aggravate the condition. Since bony changes seen in X-rays of patients with osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease look the same, spondylosis is often used interchangeably to describe such conditions. Spinal changes usually begin around age 30, but symptoms of spondylosis don’t commonly occur until after 55 years old. In a 1991 study, 85.5 percent of 45 to 64 year olds demonstrated bony growths in the lumbar spine. Also, bony growths were more common in physically active individuals.
The lumbar vertebrae lie in the curvature of the lower back and make up the largest bones of the spinal column. Medical terminology for degenerative diseases in the lumbar spine include vertebral osteophytes, facet arthrosis and disc degeneration. Lumbar spondylosis results in progressive degenerative conditions that can cause spinal instability and nerve entrapment leading to nerve damage. This type of spondylosis may result in lower back, hip, groin or thigh pain, as well as nerve damage affecting the bowel or bladder.
Abnormal wear and tear on the bones and cartilage in the neck commonly cause cervical spondylosis. Very active people may be more likely to develop cervical spondylosis. Pain from cervical spondylosis may be near the shoulder blade or spread to the upper arm, forearm or fingers. Muscles may become weaker in one arm more than the other. Long-term degenerative cervical changes may compress spinal nerves and cause permanent disability.
Spondylosis Treatment Options
Many patients who experience symptoms of lumbar or cervical spondylosis will have some long-term symptoms. Often, the symptoms get worse and then improve, although some patients may live with chronic pain. The goal of medical treatment is to alleviate pain and maintain daily living activities.
Since most cases of spondylosis result from aging, non-surgical management is usually prescribed as the first level of treatment. Physical therapy and posture therapy can help strengthen muscles in areas around the affected vertebrae. Medications can be used to treat pain and inflammation, as well as cervical collars, alternating heat and ice, steroid injections and injected anesthetics.
It is uncommon for a person with spondylosis to need surgical treatment. Usually, surgery is only used in cases of severe pain not relieved by other treatments. People who experience neurological symptoms, such as weakness, numbness and unsteady limb control should discuss with their doctor whether to consider surgery is helpful.