A lot of people talk about (and hear others talking about) having “arthritis” in their spine. It is certainly a statement that we, as chiropractors, hear quite often. There are a lot of times that arthritis is used as a “catch-all” phrase when people are experiencing back discomfort. In fact, arthritis of the spine is a specific group of conditions, with some of these conditions being very common and some of them less common, acting in a certain manner. The most common form of arthritis of the spine is called osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis usually happens alongside another common spinal condition called degenerative disc disease, or degenerative joint disease of the spine.
Osteoarthritis is a condition that can affect every joint in a human’s body. It most commonly affects joints in the hands, knees, hips, and spine. The most common location of osteoarthritis in the spine is in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions. There are many causes of arthritis, with the most common including previous injury, abnormal development, and overuse. In each of these scenarios, the way the spine moves is altered and stressed to a degree that it begins to physically change as an adaptation to this stress.
Most commonly, the first step to arthritis of the spine is degeneration of the discs that are between every vertebra. The discs begin to dehydrate and breakdown. As the discs dehydrate, they shrink and no longer have the same amount of volume to help take on the forces as they did before. The action of breaking down happens because our spinal discs do not have an active blood supply. They receive their nutrients through movement, which causes a vacuum-like effect where the discs bring in the important nutrients through a negative pressure gradient. If the spinal column does not move properly, you will not receive the proper nutrients because your body cannot produce the necessary negative pressure gradient. When the discs begin to breakdown your body will begin to replace the disc material with bone, commonly leading to osteophytes (bone spurs) pointing out from the front and back of the spine. Bone gets laid down by the body as a protective mechanism in order to take on the forces that the discs no longer can. Bone spurs are one of two major signs of arthritis that can be seen on an x-ray. The other sign is the shrinking of the heights of the disc spaces.
As degeneration in the spine develops, it is not something that can be reversed. However, it can be slowed down or prevented from occurring or progressing. Chiropractic’s role in the management of arthritis is in helping to prevent it, or slow/stop its progression. We do that by making sure that the spine is able to move in a healthy manner, properly adapting to the stresses it faces throughout the day. That movement will keep the discs healthy and able to absorb the forces they need to absorb. Keeping the discs healthy and allowing the spine and nervous system to adapt to daily life stressors is one reason why many people choose to get adjusted on a regular basis, not just when they are in pain. Maintenance adjustments help keep your spine healthy in much the same way that getting your teeth cleaned regularly at the dentist prevents the degeneration of your teeth, also known as tooth decay.
To conclude, arthritis is not something that you should just attribute to “old age” or your job and write off as being a hopeless cause with nothing you can do about it. Rather, listen to your body as it is telling you something is going on, get examined by a health care provider with knowledge of the spine, and develop a plan that will actively restore healthy movement and adaptation into your spine, including regular care by the provider as they deem necessary, and complete with proper movements and exercises that you can do on your own to live life at the highest quality you can. Take charge of YOUR health today!