Back Pain? 5 Signs It's Arthritis

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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.

More signs that back pain is arthritis

3. Neck pain that radiates into the head and shoulders

A pulled muscle in the neck or shoulder typically affects one localized area -- you may even be able to touch or pinch the muscle and feel that it's swollen. Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, may affect the cervical or thoracic spine, causing pain to be felt upward and outward.

What it feels like: Upper back or neck pain that radiates upward into the neck and base of the skull. Some people begin to experience chronic headaches that they attribute to tension headaches. It may hurt in one specific area, or the pain may recur throughout a large area, moving from spot to spot. You may notice that your neck feels tingly or numb.

Why it happens: Two things may be happening here: Both your muscles and nerves may be affected. Increased stiffness and reduced range of motion may cause you to use different muscles than you typically would, causing tension, muscle strain, and soreness throughout the neck and shoulders. Nerves may also be irritated by pressure from bony spurs, called osteophytes, that form along the cervical spine, which is the uppermost third of the spine that includes the neck. Nerve pain can cause severe pain and stiffness of the shoulders and neck and can move upward into the base and back of the skull.

4. Numbness or tingling in the arms, hands, and fingers

Some people confuse carpal tunnel syndrome with arthritis of the spine because some of the symptoms can be similar. A loss of sensation or stiffness in the wrists, hands, and fingers may make it feel like you're losing control of your fine motor movements.

What it feels like: Twinges, tingling, or numbness that radiates down from the shoulder through the arm. Depending on where nerve compression is occurring, you may feel pain all the way down your arm or in one specific place, such as your wrists, and it may come and go.

Why it happens: Inflammation and bony overgrowth of the cervical and thoracic spine can impinge upon and irritate spinal nerves, causing numbness, stiffness, and tingling and reducing sensation and motor control in the arms, hands, and fingers.

5. Pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs

A feeling of numbness or tingling that radiates down the buttocks and into the legs is typical of osteoarthritis of the spine as it progresses.

What it feels like:You might notice a lack of sensation in your legs, as if they're numb or asleep. Your legs might also feel weak or as if they're cramping or buckling. In worst-case scenarios, people develop balance problems or have trouble walking. Loss of bladder control is also possible, though less common.

Why it happens: Over time, wear and tear can cause the spinal canal -- the opening inside each vertebra where the spinal cord passes through -- to become narrower. When this narrowing becomes significant (a condition known as spinal stenosis), it can pinch or compress the spinal cord or the nerve roots that emerge from the spinal cord, leading to pain and numbness that radiates down the hips, buttocks, legs, and feet. Disc compression or injury, often occurring at the same time or as a result of arthritis, can also cause pain, known as sciatica, that radiates down the legs.


about 1 year ago, said...

I just found out I have arthritis in my lumbar area and cervicle areas of the spine not to mention myvhips knees shoulders feet & wrists my pain is excruciating, intolerable ,severe and punishing iv tried water therapy and it got worse I can't walk more then a half block before either dropping to my knees or having to sit down everything I do hurts soooo bad even things as little as brushing my teeth I helpless and hopeless sometimes I just feel like crying somebody please help me


almost 2 years ago, said...

I use a golf ball muscle massager to roll out each morning which really helps my body into the day i attached the link, it really does help. I also drink a scoop of biosteel which can help wake me up instead of coffee. Anybody else have any other ideas? www.zzathletics.com


about 3 years ago, said...

I've had back pain of one sort or another for about 30 years. The first event was a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 and the only cause seemed to be that I was sitting for two weeks in hard plastic chairs going through some very intense training for my first job out of the Navy. The doctors figured that a combination of stress and slouching caused it. Since then nothing has been as bad but I am much more aware of my posture


about 3 years ago, said...

useful new information


over 3 years ago, said...

It is an effort to do most things, even get dressed. Is anyone else afraid they may have to go into a home?


about 4 years ago, said...

It explained many of the back pain problems I have experienced in "lay man's terms" and I can understand what is actually causing my pain.


about 4 years ago, said...

I have pain from neck to waist, mostly in sides and ribs area. Hurts when I take a deep breath, hurts when I move, hurts when I get up in the morning


over 4 years ago, said...

the symptoms are what I have.


over 4 years ago, said...

Im 28 years old and I suffer from this along with many other problems with my back i am in and out of the hospital for my back going out on me Ive seen numerous drs and have only one dr that stands by my side I am very scared that this is just going to continue to take away my life more then it has but most drs just see me as a young person faking an injury to get some sort of narcotic well im tired of the judgements when no dr cares to listen to me and says im fine I have two 7 inch titanium rhodes in my back clamped on my spine a bulged disc that has screwed up the left side of my body and left most of it numb and the lower part of my spine now curving and creating more problems. This has made retire early from my career and get looked at as though im making it all up in my head as of now Ive got no clue if i will be walking still at the age of 35 how do i continue to go forward when I am constently judged by the drs who have taken no time to see that i am living in pain every single day and just want somebody to understand me for once and let me know that I am still going to be able to take care of my child at 35 rather then her taking care of me somebody please help me Ive been dealing with this for 5yrs now and cannot continue to be in and out of the hospital nor how bad it hurts to get out of bed in the morning and what little bit i can manage aroiund the house i pay for at the end of the night while im crying in my pillow please help me i dont know what else to do!


over 4 years ago, said...

Not much to add, your information was exact, but many people are visual so perhaps a few visuals or video,


over 4 years ago, said...

It was helpful for me to realize why I have certain pains. The most interesting to me is that the numbness I have in a leg could be caused by arthritis. Thank you.


over 4 years ago, said...

Overall information was good. I am dealing (didn't want to say suffering) with left side back and hip pain. Stretching throughout the day is a big help, especially before getting out of bed. Pal


over 4 years ago, said...

To Josephine Southern: I hope someone told you to use ice packs on the painful areas. They help me so much and surprisingly, they won't make you cold. I can use ice paks (the ones that you can buy in the store) and often I can skip my IBUPROFEN.


over 4 years ago, said...

It totally described my symptoms! It was good to be validated. I can let others read this to know what my life is like.


over 4 years ago, said...

TY, I enjoyed reading the messages. very sorry for those who are so terribly afflicted and I pray for you all. I am 78, I started having this lower back pain abut 2 years ago and am so tired of it. The x-rays don't show any vertebrae damage yet. My gp diagnosed osteo. A few days ago, I began having added pain on my left side of my middle back. This is just awful pain. I started taking iodineplus2 about a week ago. I have been on thyroid meds 1.0 for over a year. I am wondering if this iodine has brought me new pains. I do believe the added weight gain I have is the culprit, lest we forget not enough exercise. Low thyroid, low metabolism rate caused me to put on 40 extra lbs and I can't get rid of it. It stays at 180-185 and I am only 5'1". I have COPD and sleep apenea too. Tired all the time, I fall asleep at my computer. This is no way to live. I know I could be a lot worse and I have my doggie to comfort me, but not much else in the way of help.


over 4 years ago, said...

Yes, it was very helpful. It explained why I wasn't always sore and stiff in the same places and why the pain seemed to move around from joint to joint and why I am always so stiff when I try to get out of bed in the morning or if I've been sitting longer than 15-20 minutes. Thank you.


over 4 years ago, said...

I keep straining my back trying to do the spring gardening. Any tips?gir


over 4 years ago, said...

I have of course read this quite a while ago, but it was really good to review the subject to refresh matters


over 4 years ago, said...

I have all that has been mentioned,I've had 4 surgeries, 3 upper and one lower but of course all my pain is never gone but it has always been hard for my husband to understand all thats happening to me. I try to tell him nothing can take away my pain because of the stenosis & arthritis, he's always telling me to go to the DR. I'm hoping this article will help him to understand it all.


over 4 years ago, said...

Hello "LINDA1955", Thank you for sharing your caregiving situation with our community. I suggest re-posting your question in our dementia/Alzheimer' support group, where you'll find a supportive group of caregivers who have been faced with similar situations. You may see a sample of discussions and join the conversation here: http://www.caring.com/alzheimers-support (Please cut and paste the web address into your browser)


over 4 years ago, said...

MY DAD HAS ALZHEIMERS AND ABSOLUTELY REFUSES TO WEAR DEPENDS. I WOULD BE VERY GREATEFUL FOR ANY IDEAS/SUGGESTIONS THAT ANYONE MAY HAVE AS IT IS GETTING VERY FRUSTRATING AS YOU CAN WELL IMAGINE. THANK YOU IN ADVANCE FOR ANY REPLYS !!!


over 4 years ago, said...

I have recently changed my diet to eliminate inflammatory foods and am taking fixatif and omega 3. I couldn't move around before or reach up or get up from bending but now I can do all these things. Sugar is a big one and wheat products. There is a big list. Check it out, it it worked for me.