Spinal Arthritis

Spinal arthritis is inflammation in the joints between your vertebrae, the bones that link together to make your spine. Just like arthritis in other joints, there are several types of spinal arthritis. It can affect any section of your spine, but it’s most common to have spinal arthritis in your neck or lower back.


Spinal arthritis is inflammation in your spine where your vertebrae meet.
You’ll probably feel pain, stiffness or tenderness in your back if you have spinal arthritis.

What is spinal arthritis?

Spinal arthritis is inflammation in the joints between your vertebrae, the 33 bones that make up your spinal column. A single bone in your spine is a vertebra — vertebrae is the plural form.

Spinal arthritis is any type of arthritis that affects the joints where your vertebrae meet. Arthritis happens when joints are inflamed or tissue that cushions them breaks down (degenerates).

Your spine is divided into three main sections:

  • Cervical spine: The first seven vertebrae in your neck.
  • Thoracic spine: The middle section of your spine. It starts at the base of your neck and ends at the bottom of your ribs.
  • Lumbar spine: The bottom section of your spine in your lower back.

Arthritis can affect any section of your spine, but it’s most common in your cervical spine and lumbar spine.

Visit a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing arthritis symptoms like pain and stiffness. They’ll suggest treatments to relieve your symptoms and prevent more damage to your spine.

Types of spinal arthritis

It’s possible to develop any kind of arthritis in your spine, but the most common types of spinal arthritis include:

How common is spinal arthritis?

Spinal arthritis is very common in people older than 60. Experts estimate that around 95% of men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) and 70% of women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) older than 60 have some amount of spinal arthritis.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are spinal arthritis symptoms?

The most common spinal arthritis symptoms include:

  • Back pain (especially neck pain and lower back pain).
  • Stiffness or feeling less flexible.
  • Arm or leg pain.
  • Not being able to walk as far as you used to (a limited walking distance).
  • Fatigue (feeling tired all the time).

Depending on where you have spinal arthritis, you might have pain in other areas, including your:

  • Head.
  • Ribs.
  • Hips.
  • Butt (buttocks).
  • Knees.

What does spinal arthritis feel like?

You’ll probably feel pain, stiffness or tenderness in your back if you have spinal arthritis. You might also notice a grinding feeling, especially when you move or twist your spine. Some people say the joints in their spine feel creaky.

What causes spinal arthritis?

Different types of arthritis have different causes. For example, osteoarthritis happens over time as the tissues that cushion your joints naturally wear down. Autoimmune disorders, which happen when your immune system damages your body instead of protecting it, cause other types (like rheumatoid arthritis).

What are the risk factors for spinal arthritis?

General risk factors for all kinds of arthritis include:

  • Your age: You’re more likely to develop arthritis as you age.
  • Tobacco use: Smoking and using other tobacco products increases your arthritis risk.
  • Your sex assigned at birth: People assigned male at birth are more likely to have spinal arthritis.

You might have a higher risk of spinal arthritis if you have:

  • A family history of arthritis (if your biological parents or other close relatives have arthritis).
  • A job or hobbies that put a lot of stress on your spine (doing physical work or playing contact sports, for example).
  • Certain autoimmune disorders, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and psoriasis.
  • Overweight or obesity.


What are spinal arthritis complications?

Spinal arthritis complications can include:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is spinal arthritis diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose spinal arthritis with a physical exam and imaging tests. They’ll examine your back and spine and ask about your symptoms. Tell your provider when you first noticed pain or other changes in your back, and if any activities make the symptoms better or worse.

Talk to your provider about your health history, including any conditions you have, and treatments, medications or supplements you’re taking.

Your provider might check your spine’s range of motion (how far you can move comfortably) and feel for areas of tenderness.

Which tests do providers use to diagnose spinal arthritis?

Providers use imaging tests to take pictures of the bones and tissue in and around your spine. Your provider might use:


Management and Treatment

What are spinal arthritis treatments?

There’s no cure for arthritis, but your healthcare provider will suggest treatments to manage spinal arthritis symptoms. Which treatments you’ll need depends on which type of arthritis you have. The most common spinal arthritis treatments include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: OTC medicines like NSAIDs and acetaminophen reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Talk to your provider before taking pain relievers for more than 10 days in a row.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist is a healthcare provider who helps you improve how your body moves. They’ll help you manage symptoms like pain, stiffness and discomfort that make it hard to move.
  • Prescription medication: Your provider might prescribe corticosteroids (prescription pain relievers) that you take as a pill or as cortisone shots injected into your affected joints. It’s rare for spinal arthritis, but you might need disease-modifying anti rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) if you have rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.

Spinal arthritis surgery

Most people with spinal arthritis don’t need surgery. Your provider might suggest surgery if you have severe symptoms that haven’t gotten better after other conservative treatments. You might need surgery to repair complications like spinal stenosis or fractured (broken) vertebrae.

The most common spinal arthritis surgeries are spinal fusion and spinal decompression. Your surgeon will tell you which type of surgery you’ll need and what to expect.


Can I prevent spinal arthritis?

You probably can’t prevent arthritis, especially if it’s caused by an autoimmune disorder. You can protect your joints (including your spine) by:

  • Following a diet plan that’s healthy for you.
  • Doing low-impact exercise like swimming, yoga and cycling.
  • Avoiding smoking and tobacco products.
  • Wearing proper safety gear for all work, sports and hobbies.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have spinal arthritis?

You should expect to manage spinal arthritis symptoms for a long time (probably the rest of your life). Your provider will help you find treatments that reduce arthritis symptoms’ impact on your daily routine.

Some people with spinal arthritis experience more severe symptoms as they age. Ask your provider how often you should have follow-up visits to check for changes in your symptoms and spine. They’ll monitor your spine’s shape over time.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

Staying active is one of the best ways to relieve arthritis symptoms. Don’t force yourself to do anything that causes severe pain, but stretching and moving your body can reduce pain and stiffness and prevent them from getting worse.

You don’t need to become an ultramarathoner or Olympic weightlifter. Walking, swimming, riding a bike, stretching and doing yoga are all great ways to support your spine and strengthen muscles throughout your body. Talk to your provider or physical therapist about exercises that are good for you. They’ll suggest options that help you safely stay active.

You might need to work with an occupational therapist if spinal arthritis is making it hard to do your daily activities. They’ll help you learn how to stand, sit, move or use different tools to participate in your activities safely.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Visit a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe pain.
  • Stiffness that’s so bad it feels like you can’t move your spine at all.
  • Tingling or numbness in your arms, legs, hands, fingers, feet or toes.
  • Weakness in your arms or legs.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

You can ask your provider:

  • Which type of arthritis do I have?
  • Which types of imaging tests will I need?
  • Which treatments will I need?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • How often will I need follow-up spine exams?

Additional Common Questions

Is spinal arthritis serious?

Like any condition that affects your bones and joints, spinal arthritis can lead to serious complications. But a healthcare provider will help you find treatments that manage your symptoms and reduce how much of an impact spinal arthritis has on your day-to-day routine. Visit a healthcare provider as soon as you notice any changes in your symptoms or if it feels like your treatments aren’t as effective as they used to be.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Spinal arthritis causes symptoms like pain, stiffness and inflammation in the joints between the vertebrae in your spine. It can be scary to find out a health condition has damaged your spine, but most people with spinal arthritis are able to do all their usual activities. Your provider will help you find treatments that keep you safely active and living as pain-free as possible.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 10/11/2023.

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