Bone spurs, or osteophytes as they are medically known, are bony growths or nodules that can form on any bone in the body. The growths most commonly appear, however, in parts of the body with joints, such as the fingers, hips, knees, and spine. But how do they form, and what is their purpose?
Osteoarthritis Can Lead to Bone Spurs
When it comes to the spine, the facet joints can be affected by the development of bone spurs. Facet joints serve as the articulating points where stacked vertebrae connect together. These joints are padded with cartilage and are surrounded by a capsule filled with lubricating synovial fluid. Both the cartilage and the synovial fluid allow the facet joints to glide smoothly against each other, giving the spine its ability to move in many directional planes.
Osteoarthritis, which is one of the most common forms of joint disorders, typically affects the spine as a result of normal wear and tear on joint cartilage. Over time, the cartilage begins to dehydrate, becomes brittle and more susceptible to wearing away. Symptoms of inflammation, stiffness, tenderness, and pain may arise. In the spine, once a facet joint's protective lining has worn away, raw bone can rub on bone, causing an audible sensation of grinding or clicking (crepitus). The friction caused by facet joints grinding against each could cause bone material and minerals to build up along the edges of bone, forming bone spurs.
The Purpose of Bone Spur Formation
Now that we know that bone spurs can form in facet joints that have lost their protective cartilaginous lining, we can discuss the purpose of their formation. Facet joints are a key component in the structural integrity and alignment of the spine, helping to keep vertebrae locked together but flexible at the same time. Osteophytes are the body's way of responding to a degenerative joint that is overly stressed and unstable. The buildup of bone material along the edges of a joint, or along the endplates of vertebra, is an attempt to halt abnormal movement that the vertebral segment may be experiencing and allow the spine to regain a symmetrical alignment.
When Bone Spurs Cause Pain
Many people aren't aware of this, but bone spurs themselves are not painful. They may be peppered throughout the arthritic areas of a spinal column and a patient might never know of their existence. Osteophytes can pose a problem, however, if they form in a location that places them near to the spinal cord or one of its nerve roots. If a bone spur compresses one of these neural structures, say in the lumbar (lower back) region of the spine, focal pain can arise directly at the site of compression. This initial back pain may also be accompanied by radiating symptoms of tingling, weakness, numbness, and pain that could affect the hips, buttocks, legs, and feet.
Complete bone spur removal (osteophytectomy) may be a possibility for some patients whose spurs are causing debilitating symptoms. In the majority of cases, however, patients dealing with spinal osteoarthritis and bone spurs will not need surgery. Conservative (nonsurgical) treatments such as physical therapy, pain medication, hot/cold therapies, and low-impact exercises are typically able to relieve bone spur symptoms. Only if several weeks or months of nonsurgical treatments prove ineffective will a doctor recommend surgery as a treatment option.