Mayo Clinic Health Library

Question

'Degenerative changes' in the spine: Is this arthritis?

My doctor says I have "degenerative changes" in my spine. Does this mean I have arthritis?

Updated: 04-15-2011

Answer

Yes. The phrase "degenerative changes" in the spine refers to osteoarthritis of the spine. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Doctors may also refer to it as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis in the spine most commonly occurs in the neck and lower back.

In osteoarthritis of the spine, the spaces between the vertebrae narrow. Bone spurs often form. When bone surfaces rub together, the vertebral joints (facets) and areas around the cartilage become inflamed and painful. Gradually, your spine stiffens and loses flexibility. Once these changes appear on X-rays, osteoarthritis has already started.

If you have osteoarthritis, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment and pain management plan, which may include exercise, medications and measures to protect your joints. Your doctor may also refer you to a rheumatologist, physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon.