Severe arthritis can cause pain and even disability. But what is degenerative arthritis, and how does this wear and tear disease affect your spine, neck, and knees?
Degenerative diseases cause the structure or function of your body to degrade over time, becoming worse, rather than improving, as they progress. One of the most common and painful degenerative diseases is degenerative arthritis.
What is degenerative arthritis?
Degenerative arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a chronic disease that damages the cartilage and tissues that cushion your joints. As the cushioning wears away, the bones of a joint rub against each other, causing abnormal bone growths, pain, swelling, and stiffness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, degenerative arthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting more than 30 million adults in the United States.
Sometimes known as a wear and tear joint disease, degenerative arthritis was once thought of as an inevitable part of aging, caused by a normal erosion of cartilage and tissue, especially in joints that have suffered previous injury or are under pressure from high body weight. Some research, however, suggests that degenerative arthritis may be, in part, a metabolic disorder that affects the ability of your joints to repair and regrow tissue.
Though degenerative arthritis is commonly thought of as occurring in the knees, hips, and hands, it can happen to any joint in your body, including your neck and spine.
Degenerative arthritis of the spine and back
Degenerative arthritis of the spine is often found in specific vertebrae known as the facet joints, and as a result is sometimes called facet joint osteoarthritis, or FJ OA.
As the cartilage in those joints deteriorates and the joints lose their mobility, FJ OA can cause symptoms of back pain, tenderness, and stiffness. It can also cause numbness or tingling in your legs and feet. The symptoms are often worse when standing, sitting upright, or bending and lifting something heavy, but they may improve while lying down.
Though arthritis in other areas of the body has traditionally received more clinical attention, degenerative arthritis of the spine is both prevalent and underdiagnosed, with some studies estimating that if affects 67 percent of adults between the ages of 45 and 64 and 89 percent of those over age 65. Your risk of developing FJ OA increases if you are female, over age 45, obese, worked in an occupation that put repetitive strain on your back, or have a family history of osteoarthritis.
Degenerative arthritis in the neck
Degenerative arthritis in the neck, or cervical arthritis, wears away the cartilage and ligaments that cushion the seven small vertebrae and facet joints at the top of your spine, known as the cervical vertebrae.
The most common symptoms of degenerative arthritis in the neck are:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Numbness or tingling in your arms and shoulders
- Weakness or loss of feeling in your arms
- Headaches radiating from the back of your skull
- Loss of balance
- Disturbed sleep due to neck discomfort
Research indicates that cervical arthritis affects nearly two-thirds of adults at some point in their lifetime. Repetitive strain on your neck and spine is often the cause, or it develops within 10 years of an injury, such as a neck or back injury from a car wreck.
As cervical arthritis progresses, the friction between the vertebrae can cause bone spurs to grow. The spurs compress the nerves in your spine, which can sometimes lead to difficulty using your arms and hands. If degenerative arthritis in your neck progresses too far, it can cause permanent disability. In such extreme cases, surgery is often the only course of treatment.
Degenerative arthritis of the knee
Degenerative arthritis of the knee often happens when the pad of cartilage in your knee wears away. It generally occurs only on one side, producing asymmetrical pain in your joint. At first, degenerative arthritis usually causes mild stiffness in your knees after exercising or when your first wake up. As it progresses, the cartilage begins to wear away completely, causing constant pain.
Degenerative arthritis of the knee causes the normal symptoms of joint pain — swelling, stiffness, and decreased motion. It can also cause pain in your hips, spine, and feet as your body alters your gait to try to compensate for the changes in your knee. Women are at a higher risk for this form of degenerative arthritis, as are athletes, those with previous knee injuries, and people who are obese.
Living with degenerative arthritis
Once you know what degenerative arthritis is and how it can affect your spine, neck, and knees, the next step is managing the pain so you can continue living a full life.
The first key to living with degenerative arthritis is movement. Multiple studies have found that regular exercise allows people with degenerative arthritis to stay healthy, building muscle to stabilize and support damaged joints.
Other research has found that managing your weight through diet and exercise can also help degenerative arthritis, reducing the strain on your joints. Physical therapy can target and strengthen affected joints, while painkillers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may reduce stiffness, swelling, and discomfort.
To learn about managing degenerative arthritis, talk to a doctor about your symptoms and where you are experiencing pain. Early treatment will help you stay active, healthy, and independent as long as possible.
June 20, 2023
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA