Symptoms of Spinal Arthritis

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Spinal arthritis is the inflammation of the joints between the bones in your spine or the joints connecting your spine to your pelvis.

It can affect the:

  • Discs between vertebrae
  • Ligaments and tendons connecting them
  • Bones themselves

This can be caused by different autoimmune diseases, wear and tear on the joints, infections, and other conditions. 

Spinal arthritis is a very painful condition that increases stiffness and decreases the range of motion in joints, making it more difficult to do your normal activities.

Closeup rear low angle view of an early 60's senior gentleman having some back pain. He's at doctor's office having medical examination by a male doctor. The patient is pointing to his lumbar region

 Gilaxia / Getty Images

Types of Spinal Arthritis

There are many different types of arthritis and they are often categorized into inflammatory or non-inflammatory types. Noninflammatory arthritis still causes inflammation in the joints, but it doesn’t begin because of inflammation in the joint.

  • Osteoarthritis is a non-inflammatory form of arthritis and is also known as degenerative arthritis. It is one of the most common forms of arthritis especially in older adults because it is caused by the wear and tear of the joints that happens over time. The cartilage between the joints that cushions movement starts to breakdown while aging and this causes friction. When there is increased friction while the joint is moving, it leads to inflammation, pain, stiffness, and swelling. Arthritis in the spine affects the discs between the vertebrae.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where are the immune system breaks down the lining of the joints. Typically, rheumatoid arthritis affects other joints in the body but sometimes it can also affect the joints in the spine and neck. This is an inflammatory type of arthritis because the autoimmune response brings inflammation to the joints and it causes damage by breaking the lining.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis is part of a group of inflammatory diseases called spondyloarthritis. It is a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in the joints between the vertebrae and joints connecting the pelvis to the spine. This is a rarer form of arthritis. It affects the joints in the lower back, but it can also affect your upper back or neck.
  • Psoriatic arthritis is an inflammatory type of arthritis that affects people who have psoriasis. Typically, people are diagnosed with the skin condition, psoriasis, before they develop any joint pain, but occasionally the symptoms of arthritis can begin first.
  • Reactive arthritis is a response to an infection or illness in another part of the body that causes inflammation in the joints. Common triggers for reactive arthritis are infections in the genital, urinary, or digestive systems.

Common Symptoms of Spinal Arthritis

Some symptoms of spinal arthritis are common to all of the different types of arthritis. These can include:

  • Decreased range of motion
  • Decreased strength
  • Pain stiffness and swelling
  • Pain numbness in your arms and legs
  • Headaches

There are some differences in how the symptoms can feel based on the type of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis tends to become more painful when the joint is in use because prolonged use of the joint increases the grinding and inflammation in the joint.

For an inflammatory type of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, the pain can become worse even when the joints not in use, and long periods of time in the same position can increase pain.

Symptoms can also vary based on the part of the spine affected. For example:

  • Arthritis in the cervical spine can cause pain that radiates to the shoulders, back of the head, and chest. If the nerves leaving the spine are affected, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arms and hands can occur.
  • Arthritis in the thoracic region can lead to pain radiating through the rib cage or abdomen. Muscle spasms can occur throughout the back and abdomen. The diaphragm—the muscle below the rib cage that affects breathing—can be painful or have muscle spasms affecting breathing. Inflammation around the ribs can also lead to pain and difficulty breathing.  
  • Arthritis in the lumbar spine causes pain and stiffness in the lower back. If nerves are affected, it can lead to weakness, pain in the legs, bladder incontinence, and changes in bowel function.

Secondary Symptoms

Secondary symptoms of spinal arthritis can vary depending on the type of arthritis you have.

Osteoarthritis

The symptoms of osteoarthritis are affected by physical activity. It’s a balance of moving enough to prevent stiffness without excessive exercise that increases the pain.

The symptoms of osteoarthritis can feel worse in the morning because of prolonged inactivity while sleeping. Also, standing or walking for long periods of time can make the symptoms of osteoarthritis worse.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This usually affects many joints at once causes inflammation, pain, swelling in multiple areas of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause symptoms such as fatigue, anemia, fever, and loss of appetite.

Ankylosing Spondylitis

In the early stages of this inflammatory disease, you may also experience mild fever, loss of appetite, and general discomfort. For people with ankylosing spondylitis, the pain is often described as a dull, persistent pain that is felt on both sides of the base of the spine and lower back.

Over time the pain can spread to the upper back and neck. Pain and tenderness sometimes radiate to the ribs, shoulder blades, hips, legs, and feet.

Psoriatic Arthritis

Flares in psoriatic arthritis symptoms can be accompanied by a flare in psoriasis, experiencing both joint pain and rashes at the same time. Psoriatic arthritis most often affects the joints of the finger, toes, feet, and lower back.

Reactive Arthritis

In addition to joint pain, people with reactive arthritis may also have eye inflammation; increased urinary frequency; inflamed tendons and ligaments; or rash on the soles of your feet, palms, or mouth.

Since reactive arthritis is triggered by an infection or other diseases, it is common for joint pain to develop after experiencing diarrhea, urinary tract infection, and other symptoms of infection.

When To See a Doctor

If you are experiencing joint pain, contact your doctor. With any of the types of arthritis, it’s important to see a doctor and have a treatment plan for managing the condition. There are no cures for arthritis, but treatment helps to manage the symptoms, reduce inflammation, and can even put the disease into remission where you will experience no symptoms for a period of time.

The longer the disease is uncontrolled the more likely it is for more severe damage to happen to the joints, making it more difficult to live with.

A Word From Verywell

Spinal arthritis is a painful and progressive group of conditions. Without an effective treatment plan, it can lead to disability, difficulty completing activities of daily living, and reduce your overall quality of life. If you are experiencing joint pain, speak to your doctor and develop a treatment plan to help. This will help improve your quality of life.

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Article Sources
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  4. American College of Rheumatology. Reactive arthritis. Updated March 2019.