Spondylosis, sometimes called cervical, lumbar or thoracic spondylosis, usually refers to age-related wear and tear on the bones in the spinal column (vertebrae). This includes shrinkage of the disks, the development of osteoarthritis and the growth of bone spurs. Spondylosis is common, and affects more than 85 percent of men and women who are over the age of 60.
Wellness & Prevention
Spondylosis is related to normal changes in the body that come with age and cannot be prevented. However, the better you take care of your body and bone health in your younger years, the less likely it is that you will experience significant spine degeneration:
- Eat a diet that gives your bones enough calcium and Vitamin D
- Exercise regularly to keep bones and muscles strong
- Practice good posture
- Visit your doctor if you notice ongoing neck pain or stiffness that doesn’t go away
The term “spondylosis” is used more often as a description rather than a diagnosis. It can refer to any spine condition that causes both pain and degeneration. Many other spine conditions can lead to spondylosis, including spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease. A more specific diagnosis is important for the best treatment.
Although spondylosis progresses with age, the symptoms often do not cause any problems beyond stiffness or pain in the back or neck. More severe spondylosis may compress the spinal cord, which can lead to more serious symptoms:
- Numbness or tingling in the limbs
- Feelings of weakness in your arms, hands, legs or feet
- Problems walking with muscle coordination
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
There are several tests that may be performed to check for spondylosis:
- Range of motion tests that show limited ability to move the neck.
- During a cervical compression test, the person flexes his or her head downward, and extra pressure is applied. Neck or shoulder pain on the side the head is turned toward is considered a positive sign of spondylosis.
- Medical history to determine the presence of Lhermitte’s sign. This symptom is a sensation like an electric shock that’s felt when flexing the neck.
In some cases, imaging scans like MRIs or CT scans can be helpful. However, these test results are only considered in combination with a physical evaluation and medical history.
Since spondylosis symptoms are typically mild, most treatments are conservative:
- Lifestyle changes such as losing weight if overweight, getting regular exercise and eating a healthful diet can all help improve overall health. This can reduce symptoms of spondylosis.
- Medication, including over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen, can be taken as needed for minor discomfort. In some cases, doctors may prescribe a muscle relaxant or other medication.
- Physical therapy can show people different ways of moving that won’t make symptoms worse. Physical therapy can also help improve range of motion and flexibility.
- Spinal injections combine a local anesthetic (painkiller) with steroid medication to reduce inflammation.
- Some people report success with alternative treatments like acupuncture, yoga, trigger point therapy and massage to relieve discomfort and stiffness.
For more serious cases, more advanced treatments may be needed:
- A supportive brace may be worn for short periods, although this is not usually seen as a long-term solution.
- Bed rest may be tried for a few days until symptoms pass.
- Surgery can be an option for those who have more serious issues arising from spondylosis that don’t respond to other treatments. Some types of surgery can alleviate spinal cord compression, while spinal fusion surgery can help stabilize the spine.
Because spondylosis is progressive, ongoing care is needed. Continued changes to lifestyle and prioritizing back care are important for optimum health. Recovery after surgery for spondylosis, especially fusion surgery, can take several months or more.
With the right approach, back pain due to spondylosis can be better managed. Although there is no way to stop the aging process, taking steps to take care of spine health can minimize some effects of aging on the back and neck.