Osteophytes (Bone Spurs)

Bone spurs, also known as spondylophytes, can cause neck and back pain.

Osteophytes—better known as bone spurs—are small, smooth bony growths that may develop near the edges of a vertebral body’s endplates (called spondylophytes) or the spine’s facet joints where cartilage has worn. An osteophyte can grow at any level of the spinal column—neck, mid back, low back.

female doctor examines a mature woman's painful neckDegenerative changes in the spine's joints are a source of neck and back pain. Photo Source: iStock.com.As you age, your chances of developing bone spurs increase. Most people who develop bone spurs are 60 years or older. Osteophytes do not always cause neck or back pain and don’t always require medical treatment. A bone spur may become problematic when it compresses a spinal nerve or the spinal cord.
Axial or overhead slice of a vertebral segmentThe above illustration is an axial or overhead slice of a vertebral segment. The bone, nerve, spinal cord, and ligaments are seen, including “spondylophytes” along the outer edges of the vertebral body. Spondylophytes is another medical term for vertebral (“spondylo”) osteophytes or bone spurs. Photo Source: Shutterstock.

What Causes Bone Spurs?

Bone spurs can be caused by wear and tear, and aging-related conditions, such as degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis (spondylosis) and spinal stenosis. It is thought that osteophyte formation is the body’s attempt to repair itself and may be triggered in response to degenerative changes. Many of the spine’s structures can be adversely affected by degeneration that can cause a cascade of problems, including changes in disc structure (eg, flatten, narrow, weaken), thickening of spinal ligaments, and joint enlargement—alone or combined, these changes affect normal movement of the spine.

In addition to aging and degenerative disorders, injuries and trauma to the spine may trigger the development of bone spurs. Poor posture has also been linked as a possible cause.

How Can Bone Spurs Cause Pain?

Not every bone spur causes pain, but they can if they begin to cramp the space around your spinal nerves or spinal cord. Here’s how bone spurs can cause pain:

  • Near each spinal joint is an opening that serves as a passageway for your spinal nerves. This passageway is called the neuroforamen (or neural foramen). If bone spurs develop in the neuroforamen, they can compress the nerves and cause pain and other symptoms.

Bone Spur Symptoms

The most common symptoms of bone spurs include:

  • Neck or back pain (eg, frequency and intensity varies)
  • Pain and other symptoms may radiate (travel) from the neck (cervical radiculopathy) or low back (lumbar radiculopathy).
  • Other symptoms may include: numbness, burning, and pins and needle sensations that may affect the shoulders, arms, hands, buttocks, legs or feet
  • Pain that eases with rest and worsens with activity
  • Muscle spasms
  • Cramping
  • Weakness

In severe cases, bone spurs may lead to loss of bowel or bladder control. This is a rare symptom that warrants emergency medical care.

Diagnosing Bone Spurs

The diagnostic process is similar to that of other spinal disorders, such as spinal stenosis. After reviewing your medical history and symptoms, your doctor may order an x-ray to determine if osteophytes are present. If the x-ray is inconclusive, your doctor may order a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests will illuminate the osteophytes showing the bony overgrowths in more detail than x-ray.

Osteophyte Treatment Options

Rarely are bone spurs an urgent medical situation requiring surgery. Most people with osteophytes respond well to limited periods of rest and non-surgical treatment, such as:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • OTC or prescription analgesics (pain relievers)
  • Muscle relaxant
  • Spinal injection
  • Physical therapy; combining passive and active modalities
  • Chiropractic
  • Acupuncture

While you may have tried one, or a combination of non-surgical treatments under your doctor’s care, perhaps your pain and/or symptoms persist, have worsened and or are difficult to manage. If that’s the case, and/or neurological deficit develops, your doctor may recommend spine surgery; a last-resort treatment option.

When an osteophyte compresses a spinal nerve, your spine surgeon may recommend a laminectomy. During a laminectomy, the bone spur and other tissues pressing on the spinal nerve are removed to create sufficient space for the spinal nerve. Decompression is another name for laminectomy. In select patients, a laminectomy can be performed using minimally invasively techniques. Also, make sure to ask your surgeon questions prior to your procedure so you understand the benefits and risks of surgically removing osteophytes.

Updated on: 01/29/20
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