Spinal bone spurs, also called osteophytes, are nothing like what most people picture in their heads. That’s the first of six things about spinal bone spurs that endoscopic spinal surgery expert Dr. Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, of Atlantic Spine Center wants people to understand.
1. They’re not spikey.
“When people hear the word ‘spur,’ they tend to think of the sharp barbs worn on the heels of Western-style cowboy boots. But this doesn’t really reflect reality,” said Dr. Liu.
In truth, spinal bone spurs are usually rounded and smooth, closer in shape to the knuckle bones of the hands or the surfaces of molar teeth.
“Many people have spinal bone spurs and don’t even know it. While they’re small they might not cause any noticeable symptoms,” said Dr. Liu.
2. They’re a part of the body’s natural damage response.
When bones such as the vertebrae of the spine are damaged, the body first repairs them and then tries to protect them from future damage by adding extra bone, almost like armor.
Sometimes bone spurs begin to grow as the result of a traumatic injury such as a fracture. But more often they’re a response to prolonged stress, pressure, and friction.
“As people age, their bones naturally begin to weaken, meaning they damage more easily from everyday activities. That’s why spinal bone spurs are more common in people over the age of 60,” said Dr. Liu.
3. Symptoms aren’t limited to the area around the spine.
While the spine runs down the middle of the back, the back isn’t the only place the symptoms of spinal bone spurs might be felt. It’s true that as spinal bone spurs grow, the muscles directly around them may become irritated and inflamed. This is often the case for bone spurs in the neck or lower back.
But the spinal cord, protected by the bones of the spinal column, is also an important part of the central nervous system which controls the motor functions of the entire body.
“When people start feeling the symptoms of spinal bone spurs it’s often in other parts of the body, especially the extremities. This happens because the spurs are growing inward and pressing against the nerve roots in the spine that then branch out to the limbs,” Dr. Liu explained.
4. Pain isn’t usually the first or only symptom.
Bone spurs can certainly be painful, but pain isn’t the only symptom of spinal bone spurs. Often times when someone has spinal bone spurs, the first symptom they notice is a tingling sensation or numbness.
If left unchecked, the symptoms can become more severe, progressing into muscle weakness or even a loss of coordination. Although it’s less common, spinal bone spurs can also affect bowel or bladder function, which can be very serious and needs to be examined right away.
“If someone starts to feel some of the symptoms of bone spurs, the best thing to do is to get it checked out. The longer someone waits, the more the symptoms tend to progress. Spinal bone spurs are very treatable, but first you’ve got to have them properly diagnosed,” Dr. Liu advised.
Diagnosis usually starts with a visit to a doctor who might perform a physical examination, feeling the spine and testing the range of motion. They’ll ask questions to try and pinpoint which vertebra has the bone spurs that are causing issues. Sometimes imaging tests—including X-rays and CT scans—are used to get more precise information about the size, location, and orientation of spinal bone spurs.
5. Most treatments are simple and non-invasive.
“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen are usually a good place to start; they help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Ice can help with this too. Some people may benefit from supportive footwear, or from weight loss. And getting enough rest is always important,” Dr. Liu said.
If these treatments don’t provide relief, physical therapy or prescription medication might be used. Epidural steroid injections can also be used as a first-line treatment if the bone spurs are severe.
6. Spinal bone spur surgery is an outpatient procedure.
A surgical intervention is usually the last option, but it’s not as invasive as many people imagine it to be.
“Many people are surprised to find out they can go home immediately after spinal surgery, but that’s the case here,” said Dr. Liu.
Using a technique called an endoscopic foraminotomy, a small tube is inserted into the patient’s back, and the surgeon can remove the bone spurs and debris without disturbing the affected nerve roots.
“Some patients feel relief immediately during the procedure,” said Dr. Liu. “It’s really pretty incredible.”
Watch our 3D animated video a visual look into spinal bone spurs: