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The Connection Between Back Pain & Arthritis

June 03, 2022

Back pain is one of the most common medical complaints. It’s widely reported that about 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives. Most back pain goes away on its own within a few days to a few weeks and is not due to chronic disease. Most acute back pain is due to a musculoskeletal injury like a muscle strain or sprain and usually lasts one to seven days. Otherwise, it’s considered chronic and may be caused by arthritis. 

Adam Reinhard, NP

Many people do not suspect arthritis as a cause of their back pain. Arthritis in the back can occur in conjunction with other causes of back pain which can make it harder to get the right diagnosis and treatment. Many forms of arthritis and related conditions can cause back pain, stiffness and swelling. The lower back is the most common site of arthritis back pain.

“Although back pain is a common symptom, not all people with arthritis in the back have symptoms like pain, even those with advanced back arthritis,” said Adam Reinhard, Nurse Practitioner with West Tennessee Medical Group Neuroscience & Spine. “On the other hand, some people may experience back pain even before evidence of arthritis can be seen on an X-ray.”

Arthritis in the back, known as spinal arthritis, is inflammation of the joints in the spinal column, ranging from the pelvis up to the neck. Back arthritis is not one disease, rather, many different types of arthritis may cause back pain and stiffness. Symptoms may be related to issues like wear and tear of the joints in the spine, autoimmune disease and widespread inflammation, or infection. Though many different types of arthritis can affect the back, they generally fall into two basic categories—mechanical causes and inflammatory causes, which include rheumatoid arthritis as well as arthritis in the spinal arthritis family. Mechanical back pain, which includes osteoarthritis, is far more common than inflammatory back pain. 

The differences between mechanical and inflammatory back pain can sometimes be subtle, but there are often clear differences in the nature of the pain. Generally, inflammatory back pain strikes at a younger age, feels stiff first thing in the morning, feels better with exercise and movement but worsens with rest and inactivity. It can last for three months or more but can come and go. The inflammatory back can also wake you in the middle of the night with severe pain. 

The more common types of arthritis that affect the back include: 

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Also known as “wear and tear” arthritis. It is a chronic condition caused by the breakdown of the cartilage, which cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. This breakdown causes the bones to rub together, causing stiffness, pain and loss of joint movement. As you get older, you’re more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the spine. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the immune system turns on itself. It attacks the lining of the joints. Although rheumatoid arthritis is more common in other joints, it can also affect the spine, specifically the neck. Rheumatoid arthritis of the spine is not caused by wear and tear, so it’s considered an inflammatory arthritis. It may cause back pain and pain in other joints even when these joints are not in use. It tends to affect women more than men. This inflammatory arthritis often affects the cervical region of the spine (neck). It is more commonly diagnosed in women. 

Spondyloarthritis is an umbrella term for several types of arthritis that cause inflammation in the spine. These include ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, undifferentiated spondyloarthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease-associated spondyloarthritis. While each of these conditions can bring on different symptoms, they all can cause inflammation and pain in the spine. 

The causes of arthritis in the back or neck vary depending on the type of arthritis you have. Besides normal wear and tear and autoimmune triggers, in many cases, the exact cause remains unknown. Genetic components have been identified in connection with some forms of spinal arthritis, meaning that it may be hereditary.

The treatment for spinal arthritis varies depending on several factors, including type and severity of arthritis, level of pain, age, and overall health status. Because arthritis is a chronic disease, meaning there is no cure, the treatments typically focus on pain management and preventing further damage to the joints.

“When back pain persists for weeks or months, it’s time to investigate whether a medical condition could be responsible for the symptoms,” said Reinhard. “Arthritis is difficult to self-diagnose. Talk with a doctor about your symptoms. Left undiagnosed and untreated, your condition may worsen and cause disability.” 

West Tennessee Medical Group Neuroscience & Spine patients have access to diagnostic services and treatment for a full range of spine-related concerns, including back pain, issues with the sciatic nerve, spinal stenosis, and herniated discs. To schedule an appointment with a West Tennessee Medical Group Neuroscience & Spine provider, click here