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Is it Back (Spinal) Arthritis?

September 17, 2023 Posted in: Orthopedics

Back arthritis, medically known as spinal arthritis or facet joint arthritis, is a condition characterized by the inflammation of the facet joints in the spine. While it can affect people of various ages, it is more commonly seen in individuals over the age of 50. The most prevalent type of back arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs due to the gradual breakdown of cartilage that cushions the spinal joints. This can lead to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in the affected area. Back arthritis pain is often described as a dull ache that may worsen with movement or prolonged periods of inactivity.

What does spinal arthritis feel like?

Spinal arthritis pain is distinct from other conditions that might present similar symptoms. Unlike sharp, shooting pains associated with nerve compression, spinal arthritis pain is often more persistent and achy. It might feel like a deep discomfort in the back or neck, and it can radiate to the hips and buttocks. The pain can vary in intensity, ranging from mild to severe. Additionally, the discomfort may worsen after extended periods of sitting or standing, and mornings can be particularly challenging due to stiffness that tends to improve as the day progresses.

Common spinal arthritis symptoms

  • Chronic back pain or stiffness
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Pain that worsens with activity
  • Morning stiffness that improves throughout the day
  • Tenderness over affected joints
  • Grating or popping sensations during movement
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities (in advanced cases)
  • Muscle weakness (in advanced cases)

Types of spinal arthritis


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of spinal arthritis. It develops over time due to wear and tear on the spinal joints. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and decreased flexibility. Osteoarthritis can affect any part of the spine.


Spondyloarthritis refers to a group of inflammatory diseases that primarily affect the spine. It includes subtypes like axial spondyloarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, and enteropathic arthritis. Symptoms often include pain and stiffness, which tend to improve with movement and worsen with rest.

Axial spondyloarthritis

This subtype of spondyloarthritis mainly affects the spine and sacroiliac joints. It typically involves lower back pain and stiffness, often starting in early adulthood.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis affects individuals with psoriasis, causing joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. It can impact the spine, leading to discomfort and reduced mobility.

Reactive arthritis

Reactive arthritis, triggered by infections in other parts of the body, can cause inflammation in the joints, eyes, and urinary tract. It often affects the spine's sacroiliac joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis

While primarily a joint condition, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect the spine. Inflammatory cells attack the synovium, leading to pain and stiffness.

Enteropathic arthritis

Linked to inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, enteropathic arthritis can impact the spine and peripheral joints, causing pain and inflammation.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows, causing pressure on nerves. It can lead to pain, numbness, and weakness in the back and legs.

Other causes of back pain


Scoliosis and spinal arthritis share some symptoms like back pain and stiffness. However, scoliosis involves a lateral curvature of the spine, while spinal arthritis focuses on joint inflammation.

Herniated disc

A herniated disc can cause back pain similar to spinal arthritis. However, a herniated disc often involves radiating pain and numbness due to nerve compression.


Fibromyalgia can cause widespread pain, similar to spinal arthritis. However, fibromyalgia pain tends to be more diffuse and involves tender points.

Lumbar muscle strain

Muscle pain can be confused with spinal arthritis, but muscle strain often results from overuse or injury and responds well to rest and physical therapy.

Preventing spinal arthritis

Factors that increase the risk of spinal arthritis include aging, genetics, obesity, and prior injuries. Maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, and practicing good posture can lower the risk of developing painful spinal arthritis.

When to see a doctor

If back pain persists for more than a few weeks, becomes severe, or limits your daily activities, it's important to consult a doctor. Additionally, if you experience numbness, weakness, or bowel/bladder changes, seek medical attention promptly.

Call (423) 206-9480 to schedule an appointment with CHI Memorial Neuroscience Institute’s Neurosurgery and Spine Center. 

How is spinal arthritis diagnosis

To diagnose spinal arthritis, a doctor will evaluate your medical history, conduct a physical examination, and order imaging tests like X-rays and MRIs. The diagnosis process typically takes a few weeks, as it involves careful assessment and consideration of your symptoms and test results.

Treating spinal arthritis

Treatment for spinal arthritis aims to alleviate pain, improve function, and manage inflammation. Depending on the severity, treatment options include:


Pain relievers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) might be prescribed to manage pain and inflammation.


In severe cases where conservative treatments are ineffective, surgical options like facet nerve ablation or joint fusion may be considered to provide relief and improve mobility.


What aggravates back arthritis?

Activities that strain the spine, poor posture, obesity, and overuse can exacerbate back arthritis symptoms.

What are the stages of arthritis in the back?

Arthritis progresses from mild to severe stages. Early stages involve occasional discomfort, while advanced stages can lead to chronic pain, stiffness, and limited mobility.

At what age does arthritis back pain start?

Arthritis-related back pain can start in adulthood, typically becoming more common as people age.

Does spinal arthritis hurt all the time?

Spinal arthritis pain can be intermittent, but it often becomes chronic and may worsen over time without proper management.

Get spine care at CHI Memorial

CHI Memorial offers comprehensive spine care, including diagnosis and treatment for spinal arthritis. Our team of experts can provide personalized care to help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

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