Spondylosis: What is it & How Do I Treat it?

"Spondylosis" sounds like it could be a type of plant or cute underwater creature. However, it actually has to do with spinal pain. Unless you've been diagnosed with spondylosis, chances are you probably won't know what it means (or have even heard of it). If your physician has suggested you have spondylosis, it could still be confusing!

Are you ready to have your mind blow? Spondylosis is not the same thing as "spondylolysis" or "spondylolisthesis". All 3 terms have to do with your spine (spondylosis comes from the ancient greek word for "vertebrae"), but refer to slightly different conditions of the spine.

Spondylosis is actually an umbrella term for pain felt from "spine degeneration" (the breaking down of the spinal column). This means that spondylosis does not really capture your specific condition. It's like saying, "I'll meet you in Canada" but not specifying which city, or even province you plan to go to. If you've been diagnosed with "spondylosis" by your physician, it's important to find out exactly what condition you have.. After all, you wouldn't want to pack your bags for Toronto and find out you're headed for Whitehorse!

According to the Arthritis Foundation, spondylosis affects about 75% of individuals over the age of 60 years.

What is Spondylosis?

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In a nutshell, spondylosis refers to "changes in your spine" and often, "spinal pain". It is not a medical diagnosis, but refers to symptoms causing degenerative changes to the spine, vertebral joints or discs. In other words, spondylosis loosely refers to conditions that are breaking down and wearing away your spinal column.

Spondylosis is often referred to as "osteoarthritis of the spine". Spinal osteoarthritis is the general wear and tear of the spine (usually a result of age), and is the most common condition behind spondylosis.

Spondylosis can be used synonymously with "spinal arthritis" or "spinal osteoarthritis" or "osteoarthritis of the spine".

Spondylosis of the Spine

Spondylosis refers to the breaking down or wearing away of the spine. However, the spine is a long vertebral column! The spine has 32 bones stacked on top of one another and 3 natural curves. The main regions of the spine that spondylosis affect are:

  • The neck (cervical)

  • Mid-back (thoracic)

  • Lumbar (low back)

Spondylosis generally refers to the breaking down/ wearing away of the spine. It can affect the neck, mid-back or lower back. Spondylosis is most common in the neck and low back.

What Causes Spondylosis of the Spine?

As we now know, "spondylosis" describes various spinal conditions. In addition to osteoarthritis of the spine, here are the conditions that spondylosis commonly describes:

Spondylosis is used to describe these conditions:

  • Degeneration in the facet joints (osteoarthritis). This is the most common cause of spondylosis.

  • Degeneration of the spinal discs (degenerative disc disease, like lumbar degenerative disc disease where discs thin and break down).

  • Narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis/ lumbar spinal stenosis/ cervical spinal stenosis where the spinal nerve root becomes compressed).

  • Bone Spurs (can be called "spondylosis deformans" where osteophytes [bone spurs] grow and cause pain by interfering with spinal nerves, muscles or ligaments).

  • Spinal pain/ chronic back pain.

Spondylosis symptoms

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Spondylosis, since it is used to describe a wide-range of conditions, comes with various symptoms. If one has spondylosis, caused by spinal stenosis in the lower back, symptoms may resemble sciatica. If on the other hand, spondylosis is caused by lumbar degenerative disc disease, lower back or buttocks pain may be the primary symptom. Depending on the root cause of your spondylosis, symptoms and their severity will differ.

  • Pain- Pain can range from mild to moderate, all the way to chronic and radicular. Radicular pain refers to nerve pain where it can feel "sharp" or "electrical". Depending on your condition, pain can be worsened by sitting or standing (e.g. if you have a herniated disc, pain can be relieved by lying down or walking).

  • Stiffness- You may feel stiff in the mornings or after prolonged sitting or laying. Certain positions may be easier to get in and out of.

  • Numbness or tingling ("pins and needles")- You may feel the uncomfortable "tingling" sensation or numbness in your leg and other body parts.

  • Flare-ups- Painful flare-ups are noticeable after exercising or sudden movements.

Spondylosis Treatment

Your primary care doctor will likely be the first to diagnose your condition. They will perform some tests and assessments and may recommend a neurologist or orthopedist. You will likely have a neurological examination that looks at your spine, motion, and notes any abnormalities. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs may be used to give your care provider greater insight into degeneration, abnormalities and the soft tissue around your spine. Pain is evaluated and then a course of treatment is determined.

Fortunately, surgery is rarely recommended for patients with spinal conditions.  Surgery will only be recommended as a "last resort" once all other treatments have expired. Non-invasive treatments and physical therapy can prove extremely helpful.

Here are recommended treatments:

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  1. Manage Stress. If you're under a lot of stress or anxiety, this stress can affect your physical health. Back pain and chronic pain are closely linked to stress, anxiety, and mental illness. Studies show that people mental health(like anxiety or depression) are more likely to have back pain.

  2. Lifestyle Changes. Chronic back pain and arthritis can be influenced by numerous lifestyle factors like: your weight, activity level, playing high-impact sports, the amount of sleep you get, your job, and even if you're a smoker or non-smoker. Losing extra weight is one of the single best things you can do to unload undue pressure from your joints.

  3. NSAIDS/ Medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs cut down on inflammation and swelling. Inflammation is a top cause of pain. NSAIDS can be prescribed or are available over-the-counter (like Tylenol). Other narcotic pain medications can be prescribed by your physician for severe and chronic pain, alongside muscle relaxants to help with spasms. Learn more about taking narcotics to relieve joint pain.

  4. Injection Therapy: Epidural steroid injections, nerve blocks, and trigger point injections are just a few of the types of injections used to treat spinal pain. These injections are usually administered with anesthetic and steroid medication that reduces inflammation and temporarily cuts down on pain. Injections are considered a "middle of the road" treatment, as they are more invasive than other treatments. They can only be given every few months, up to a maximum number of treatments per year. Here are some of the back pain relief injections outlined by the Arthritis Foundation.

  5. Physical Therapy/Exercise. Although it may be painful to exercise, it's more painful and damaging to avoid exercise. Engaging in low-impact exercises like yoga and pilates will strengthen your abdominal core and stretch your body. Regular yoga and pilates can support your back and is great for stress relief.

  6. Chiropractor. In some cases, spinal manipulation and other chiropractic work can help with lower back pain. Spinal manipulation, along with the other chiropractic adjustments, massaging, heating/icing can be quite helpful.  Ask your physician if he/she thinks you could benefit from seeing a chiropractor.

  7. Massage/ Acupuncture. Massage relieves muscle spasms to improve mobility and quality of movement. Acupuncture works with your body's pressure points to relieve stress. Ask your physician if he/she thinks you could benefit from massage or acupuncture.


*If you have back pain and are looking to treat it (with or without surgery), join our blog:

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Hi, I'm Grace. I write all things surgery for the PeerWell blog. You may remember me from such titles as: "Diabetes & Joint Replacement 101" & "Sex After a Joint Replacement".

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