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Back Pain? 5 Signs It's Arthritis

By , Caring.com senior editor
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If you think arthritis is a disease of older adults only, think again. That persistent backache that you've attributed to pulled muscles or neck strain may very well be osteoarthritis, the most common kind of arthritis no matter what your age. In fact, osteoarthris of the spine, also called spondylosis, affects 15 percent of all American adults. While it's most common in those over age of 45, it affects many younger adults as well, often triggered by a work-, accident-, or sports-related injury. For reasons experts don't yet understand, women typically experience more severe chronic pain from spinal arthritis than do men.

According to doctors, X-ray screening of the spine will uncover degenerative arthritic changes in 95 percent of people over the age of 50 -- yet not all will have back pain, at least not right away. That's because it depends on where and how the wear and tear affects the structure of the spine and whether the nerves and the discs between the vertebrae become involved.

When spinal arthritis does affect the nerves and disks, the result can be persistent, excruciating pain that profoundly affects mobility and quality of life. And when your back hurts, you'll do just about anything to feel better: In 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Americans spent $85.9 billion dollars seeking relief. Luckily, if you do have arthritis, new treatment options are becoming available. Here are five telltale signs that your back pain is caused by arthritis:

1. Pain that comes on gradually and worsens over time

Typically, back pain that's not osteoarthritis comes on suddenly and results in an excruciating attack that may leave you immobilized but gradually improves as the underlying problem heals. Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, may start with a twinge here, a twinge there, and before you know it you have a backache almost every day.

What it feels like: Acute pain or overall achiness in one or more parts of your back. Pain due to osteoarthritis may come and go; you may feel better for a few weeks or months, and then the pain comes back worse than before.

Why it happens: The cartilage between the vertebrae wears down, causing the bones to rub against each other. With less cushioning between the vertebrae, the joints become inflamed. Often, as the components of the spine wear down, the intervertebral discs wear down too. For this reason, patients with osteoarthritis often also have degenerative disc disease, and a compressed disc can cause a sudden onset of pain. Many people don't experience pain until the bones or other structures of the back put pressure on or pinch the spinal cord or the nerve roots that emerge from the spinal cord, which is why the pain may come and go.

2. Stiffness and limited range of motion

If you feel stiff and achy when you get out of bed in the morning, it's often a sign of osteoarthritis rather than sore muscles or a disc problem.

What it feels like: Your back feels stiff and unbending but becomes more flexible as the day goes on. When you bend over or arch your back, it may trigger more severe pain. Certain activities, such as sports, yoga, or dance may become more difficult. You may notice that the stiffness is less and range of motion improves with stretching and exercise. You may also notice "migrating" sore muscles that recur in different areas. It may feel like one shoulder is sore one day, your neck the next, the other shoulder a week later.

Why it happens: Over time, degeneration of the joints of the spine causes inflammation around the joints. Your body doesn't want the joints to move, because when they move they rub against each other, so your back compensates by stiffening. One of the factors that can lead to a missed diagnosis of arthritis of the spine is that people often compensate for the stiffness by using different muscles, which can in turn become sore from overuse.