Spondylosis is an age-related condition that causes degeneration in the spine. Spondylosis literally means stiffening of the spine (vertebrae) due to a disease process.
It can occur in any part of the spine, i.e., in the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper and mid back), or lumbar spine (lower back), though symptoms in the cervical spine and lumbar spine are more common. Note that, there are several other terms that could be confused with spondylosis, such as spondylitis, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis.
One major reason for spondylosis is age. As one grows older, there is wear and tear resulting in bone spurs or degenerative disc disease.
Our spinal discs contain gel-like material that dries out over time causing dehydration in the discs. This condition results in the spinal bones to rub against each other that can be painful.
Sometimes, the spine can develop cracks leading to leakage of the gel-like material to press the spinal cord and nerves resulting in numbness and sciatica. This condition is called herniation of the discs.
Spondylosis can also be caused due to injury in the back or neck, which speeds up the aging process.
Stiffness of the ligaments affects the movement of the back or neck due to the tightness of the cords connecting our spinal cord.
Some jobs require repetitive movements or heavy lifting, etc. which result in overuse of the spinal cord accelerating the wear and tear.
A physical examination will enable the physician to rule out spondylosis. This will include asking the patient several questions, performing some tests which include testing one’s reflexes, checking for sensory deficits like if the patient is experiencing any numbness, and also checking the range of motion. Sometimes, the physician may watch the patient’s walking. These enable the physician to understand if the spinal cord is under pressure.
Once the physician is convinced the condition is spondylosis, he might order some imaging tests and nerve conduction tests to confirm the diagnosis.
The various imaging studies include x-rays to check for characteristic features of spondylosis such as the presence of bone spurs and other abnormalities, CT scan to study the spinal cord in detail, and MRI to detect underlying nerve damage. Nerve conduction tests are ordered to assess how well the nerves and muscles are functioning.
Since spondylosis is a degenerative process, there is no treatment to reverse the process. Hence, the treatment is mainly targeted towards neck or back pain that is caused due to spondylosis. Available treatments fall into several categories:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, mild opiate drugs such as codeine in case of severe pain, or muscle relaxants in case of spasms. In case oral methods fail, the physician may also prescribe injections of painkillers.
Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking and swimming.
Changing the posture when sitting and standing helps.
Ayurveda, yoga, pilates, massage, acupressure, and acupuncture.
Surgery is considered as the last resort and generally recommended if there is underlying damage to the nervous system or there is persistent pain that fails to respond to other treatments.