Spinal arthritis causes vary, but the main reason for the development of the condition is believed to be aging. Several degenerative processes occur naturally in the spine as we age and among them is the deterioration of facet joint cartilage. Before discussing spinal arthritis causes, it is helpful to understand exactly what spinal arthritis is and how it affects the spinal anatomy.
Arthritis and the Spine
Spinal arthritis – or more specifically, spinal osteoarthritis – is a condition that affects the facet joints of the spine. The vertebrae of the spine are connected by facet joints, and these joints give us a high degree of flexibility to twist, turn, and bend. Each vertebral joint surface is lined with cartilage and a synovial membrane. Cartilage provides a thin cushion to keep vertebral bones from grinding against each other, while the synovial membrane secretes synovial fluid to provide the joints with lubrication.
Spinal arthritis is characterized by the breakdown and dehydration of joint cartilage as we grow older and unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to stop it. As the cartilage wears down, tiny medial branch nerves that innervate a facet joint may be irritated or damaged, which could cause localized pain and tenderness. Additionally, the affected vertebrae may begin to rub against each other once joint cartilage has worn away, and the lubricating synovial membrane may be damaged, too. The resulting bone-on-bone friction usually causes the main spinal arthritis symptoms, which include pain, stiffness, tenderness, and inflammation. Bone spurs may also develop.
We know that aging process plays a large part in how spinal arthritis develops, but there are other spinal arthritis causes that can occur on their own or in conjunction with growing older. Additional causes can include:
• Injuries – Traumatic injuries to the back or neck can cause a variety of problems, including possible intervertebral disc damage. If a disc is damaged by bulging or rupturing, the facet joints may overcompensate for the lack of stability and work harder. The added stress on the facet joints could lead to the development of spinal arthritis.
• Genetics – An individual with a family history of arthritis or other spinal conditions may be more susceptible to developing spinal arthritis. Others with birth defects and spinal deformities at an early age may also develop the condition sooner than normal.
• Obesity – The facet joints of the spine can withstand a lifetime of wear and tear, but being overweight can hasten the onset of spinal arthritis. The joints must work harder to support the additional weight, which can lead to early deterioration of joint cartilage.
• Repetitive movements – Some occupations require extensive standing and upper body movement; and frequent twisting, bending, turning, and lifting can lead to spinal arthritis. Athletes can also develop the condition for this reason.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for osteoarthritis and there is no definitive way to completely prevent the condition from occurring. However, there are several steps that can be taken to maintain a healthy spine as long as possible, such as eating a well-balanced and healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding weight gain, maintaining proper posture and body mechanics, and finding ways to eliminate added stress on the joints.