What causes a bone spur?
A bone spur is a bony projection that forms along the joints where bones meet each other. Bone spurs are fairly common and often result from osteoarthritis. As a result, bone spurs typically affect patients over the age of 60. Wear and tear resulting from a reduction in cartilage can cause bone-on-bone friction. In some instances, bone spurs may occur in the spine.
Increased stress on the spine or an acute injury may cause osteoarthritis that eventually causes the bone spur to develop. Despite the name, bone spurs are not sharp growths that “stick” other parts of the spine; they are generally smooth structures that form over a prolonged period of time.
What are the symptoms?
It is not uncommon for bone spurs to produce no noticeable symptoms at all. In fact, some bone spurs may exist but remain undetectable for years. An X-ray may reveal the condition, but some patients experience pain as a result of inflammation that occurs when a bone spur rubs against a nerve. Pain associated with bone spurs may often increase during activity and subside during rest.
Bone spurs on the vertebrae may narrow the space that contains your spinal cord. These bone spurs pinch the spinal cord or its nerve roots leading to pain, weakness or numbness in your back, arms or legs. This pain may increase when standing or walking but improve when sitting.
Pain, numbness or loss in range of motion represents signs of a more serious bone spur that may require medical intervention. Dull pain in the neck or back, or radiating spine in the shoulders, rear or thigh, may indicate a bone spur.
How are bone spurs diagnosed?
Your physician will conduct a physical examination designed to assess pain levels and mobility/functionality, and he or she will also review your medical history to determine if a bone spur or some other spine problem may be causing the pain.
In some instances, a series of imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis may be beneficial. In many cases, a review of symptoms and basic physical assessment are all that is needed to diagnose a bone spur.
Should imaging be necessary, your physician may order an X-ray to determine the presence or source of the bone spur. An electromyography (EMG) may also help determine the extent of nerve injury associated with the bone spur. These tests are conducted to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms or better identify the exact source of the problem.
How are bone spurs treated?
Mild or moderate symptoms associated with nerve compression related to spinal bone spurs are typically treated non-operatively. Your physician will prescribe a course of treatment designed to help alleviate pain. Medication, activity modification, physical therapy and recommended short periods of rest may help lessen or eliminate pain. Prescribed medications may include anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants.
Injection therapy may reduce pain and inflammation for a period of time.
If pain is severe or the nerve damage caused by the spur is significant and a patient does not respond well to conservative treatment, surgical intervention such as a laminectomy may be recommended to actually remove the bone spur.