Arthritis of the Neck and Back Overview
Arthritis of the neck and back is a popular term for the degenerative changes that occur in the spine with aging. Arthritis is a term well known by the public but is a poor descriptor for the degenerative cascade associated with the spine. Arthritis can occur in any large joint that is covered with cartilage such as the hip, knee or shoulder where the cartilage surface wears down, bone spurs result and the joint becomes painful.
The spine is very different from the typical hip or knee joint that develop arthritis. The vertebrae are joined in the rear by two separate joints (the facet joints) but also have the disc in the front. The disc is what separates the spine from any other normal joint (other than the fact that the nerves also live right in the vertebral canal). The disc is a complex mechanism that acts as a shock absorber but also restrains motion. It looks like a jelly filled donut with the outer donut acting just like plies of a tire and the inner jelly under pressure holding up the vertebra above.
Now- the facet joints in the back of the spine can wear out and develop typical arthritis of the neck and back. However, in the lumbar spine, arthritis of these joints is typically painless. In the neck, arthritic joints can cause neck pain but less commonly than the disc.
The disc is the problem with most patients. It can degenerate or herniate (see sections on this web site for those conditions). This condition is called degenerative disc disease but it is really not a disease but a disorder.