What Is Spondylosis? Understanding the Various Types of Spinal Degeneration

Here's what you need to know about spondylosis, a term referring to painful back conditions that are common, not usually serious, and very treatable.


Although spondylosis won’t simply go away, it is a manageable condition.

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The term spondylosis means degeneration of the spine. The word sounds ominous, but the condition affects just about everyone as they age and as the spine goes the through the wear and tear of daily activities.

Spondylosis is also a “catch-all” term because spinal degeneration takes various forms. It might be a pinched nerve, a bulging or herniated disc, a bone spur, spinal stenosis (narrowing), sciatica, or, more commonly, spinal osteoarthritis.

Don’t panic if you have or think you have spondylosis. It is not usually serious, and it’s treatable with familiar, conservative methods. Some people have spondylosis but don’t have symptoms that cause pain. Surgery is a rare, last-resort option.

Are You in the High-Risk Group for Spondylosis?

Several factors can speed up the spinal degeneration process. Some are movement related and include:


2 Percent of all hospital admissions due to cervical spondylosis
20-50 Age range at which symptoms first appear
75 Percent of people over 60 who have the condition
3,000,000 Number of spondylosis cases reported each year

  • Injuries
  • High-impact sports
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Falls
  • Repetitive motion
  • Manual labor
  • Holding your neck in an uncomfortable position for an extended period of time
  • Overuse

Other underlying factors that do not involve exercise but increase the risk are:

  • Genetic predisposition to spinal abnormalities
  • Family history of back pain
  • Previous spinal surgery
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive use of alcohol
  • Undernutrition or malnutrition
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Benign or malignant tumors

Pain Is Common, But Not the Only Symptom

Most people don’t have significant symptoms. When they do, pain is the most common complaint, but not the only one. It can affect the neck-shoulder area (cervical region), the (thoracic) mid-back, or the (lumbar) lower back, and it can be chronic or acute, ranging from mild tenderness to muscle spasms.

Pain that radiates from the buttocks down one leg might be a sign of sciatica. Cervical spondylosis can cause headaches and pain in the shoulders, arms, hands, or fingers.

Stiffness develops after a period in inactivity during the day, following a night’s sleep, or even after a nap. Limited range of motion is a frequent complaint of those who have spinal osteoarthritis. Numbness or tingling are less commonly reported, as are loss of balance and difficulty walking.

Although symptoms are often mild, they might lead to more debilitating conditions later in life. If you experience bladder or bowel incontinence, immobility, or fever, get medical help immediately.

Diagnosis by Primary Care Physician or Orthopaedic Surgeon

If non-emergency symptoms continue to interfere with daily activities, see your primary care physician or an orthopaedic surgeon. Diagnosis involves both physical and neurological examinations. X-rays, a CT scan, EMG, or MRI may be ordered to rule out certain conditions and to get a clearer image of the problem.

Treatment Starts with Exercise

Your doctor might recommend an exercise program supervised by a physical therapist. For mild cases and to guard against future episodes, at-home exercises increase strength and range of motion. Examples are modified squats, back extensions, seated twists, seated knees to chest, and bridges.

Other do-it-yourself treatments are ice or heat applications—whichever makes you more comfortable. The evidence is mixed regarding which is best. Stretching and warming up before physical activity might make it easier.

Medications for pain relief start with over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If they are not effective, muscle relaxants, nerve pain drugs, opioids, or steroids may have to be prescribed.

The Outlook

Although spondylosis won’t simply go away, it is a manageable condition. Exercising (including walking) and using medications wisely will allow you to live a normal, active life.

This article was originally published in 2017. It is regularly updated. 

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Jim Brown, PhD

As a former college professor of health education, Jim Brown brings a unique perspective to health and medical writing. He has authored 14 books on health, medicine, fitness, and sports. … Read More

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