Bone Spurs (Osteophytes)

By:    Published: May 7, 2012

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Many people mistakenly believe that bone spurs are spiky pieces of bone that stick out and cause pain in the neck and back. The truth is that bone spurs are not spiky, but are smooth and usually painless. Any pain that is experienced is usually a result of other conditions that may be present. Many people are unaware that they have bone spurs until they have an x-ray for other conditions. However, in some cases, bone spurs can cause a significant amount of pain.

Definition

Bone spurs are smooth, bony pieces that form on the edges of the bone. They usually occur where bones connect to one another in the joints; however, they can also form on the spine. The majority of bone spurs present with no symptoms and go undetected for several years after they have developed. Bone spurs are normal pieces of bone that form as people age, usually as a result of normal wear and tear from osteoarthritis.

Symptoms

Because bone spurs are usually painless, there are often no symptoms associated with their development. Specific symptoms that do develop will depend on the location of the bone spur. Common bone spur locations include:

  • Knees
  • Spine
  • Hips
  • Shoulders
  • Fingers

When bone spurs are present in the knee, you may experience pain when bending or extending your leg. This is a result of bony growths interfering with the normal operation of bones and tendons in the knee.

Bone spurs that form on the spine can restrict the space surrounding your spinal cord. When this happens, the spurs can pinch the spinal cord or pinch the nerves at their roots. This can lead to numbness or weakness in the arms and legs.

When bone spurs develop in the hip, you may have difficulty moving your hip and you might experience pain in your knee. Your normal range of motion may be restricted.

If bone spurs form in the shoulder, the rotator cuff muscles and tendons can develop tendinitis, a painful condition that causes swelling. It can also lead to tears in the rotator cuff.

Bone spurs in the fingers present as hard lumps that form under the skin. Individuals with bone spurs in the fingers often have a knobby appearance to their fingers.

Although most bone spurs do not cause symptoms, they can trigger other conditions such as tendinitis that do cause symptoms. Symptoms of bone spurs or bone spur-related conditions include:

  • Tingling or burning in the hands or feet
  • Dull neck pain
  • Dull lower back pain
  • Loss of coordination in a specific body part
  • Muscle cramps
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Pain that radiates down the buttocks or legs
  • Pain that radiates to the shoulder
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty controlling bladder or bowels
  • Pain that increases with physical activity
  • Pain that improves with rest
  • Pain that improves when leaning forward at the waist

The symptoms of bone spurs or bone spur-related conditions will depend specifically on where the bone spur is located.

Causes

The most common cause for bone spurs is the normal wear and tear that develops as a result of osteoarthritis as people age. When an individual has osteoarthritis, the cartilage that is located at the ends of the bones is broken down. Bone spurs are the body’s defense mechanism against this breakdown of cartilage. The body begins forming bone spurs near the damaged area to repair the cartilage that was lost.

Risk Factors

In addition to osteoarthritis and normal aging, there are other risk factors for developing bone spurs. Additional risk factors include:

  • Aging, with or without osteoarthritis
  • Disc degeneration
  • Joint degeneration
  • Heredity
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Injuries from car accidents
  • Poor nutrition
  • Poor posture
  • Structural abnormalities from birth

When To Call A Doctor

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and you suspect that you may be suffering from bone spurs, make an appointment with your health care provider. Call your doctor is you experience swelling or pain in any of your joints or if you find it difficult to move any of your joints. It is important to get medical attention as soon as you suspect a problem, as early treatment can slow or prevent further damage to joints.

Preparing For Your Appointment

Your family physician will first perform a general physical exam and attempt to rule out other conditions. He will ask you several questions about your condition. It will be helpful for you to make a list to bring with you to your appointment so that you don’t forget any important medical information.

Include any symptoms that you have been experiencing and for how long, your medical history and any important medical information and a list of all medications and supplements you are taking or have taken in the past 6 months. Be sure to list both prescription and over the counter medications.

After your exam, if your doctor suspects that you may have bone spurs, he will likely refer you to a rheumatologist who specializes in joint disorders. When preparing for that appointment, make a list of questions you may have for the doctor. Possible questions you may wish to ask include:

  • What may be causing my symptoms?
  • What tests will I need?
  • What treatment potions do I have?
  • Will my symptoms improve with treatment?
  • Are there side effects for any medicines that are recommended?
  • Will I require surgery?
  • Are there home remedies I can use to relieve pain and other symptoms?

Diagnostic Tests

When meeting with the rheumatologist, he will ask a series of questions regarding your symptoms. He will then conduct a physical exam much like the one your family physician performed. He will likely fell your joint and isolate the location of the pain. Occasionally, he may be able to detect the bone spur with his own fingers. An x-ray will be ordered to confirm the diagnosis of bone spurs.

Treatment

The type of treatment you receive will depend largely on the location of the bone spurs and the severity of the pain or other symptoms they are causing. Minor pain can often be treated with over the counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications. If range of motion is limited or severe pain is present, surgical removal of the spurs may be required.

Considerations

Bone spurs can occasionally break off of the main bone they are attached to. When this occurs, the broken pieces, known as loose bodies, can float around the joint or adhere to the joint lining. This can lead to joint locking, which can come and go as the loose bodies float about.

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