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When Does My Back Pain Mean Arthritis?

Back Pain Symptoms and Arthritis

Pain in the back is a common medical complaint, but does your back pain mean arthritis?  Many people don’t assume so. When your hands or knees begin to ache, people are more likely to assume it’s arthritis versus another cause. But that’s not the case with back pain.  

If you are experiencing back pain and want to know how likely it is that it is arthritis, keep reading for more information.

Back Pain Symptoms That May Be Signs of Arthritis

If you are experiencing any or all of the below symptoms, your back pain may be associated with arthritis. (Note your symptoms and schedule an appointment with your doctor for evaluation and any necessary testing). 

  1. Waking up to pain
  2. Limited range of motion
  3. Stiffness
  4. Loss of flexibility
  5. Loss of function (struggling to get up and down or carry light to moderate weight items)
  6. Tenderness
  7. Grinding sensation in the spine
  8. Tingling or numbness
  9. Sharp pains in extremities (a sign that nerves are affected)
  10. Pain or stiffness in your other joints
  11. Pain that disrupts your sleep
  12. Headaches and fatigue
  13. Pain in your pelvis, hips, or thighs
  14. Pain continues to get worse

Back Pain Symptoms

Types of Arthritis that Cause Back Pain

“Arthritis” is a common term that encompasses many different types of the disease. It’s important to know which type of arthritis may be causing your back pain to receive proper treatment. 
There are several types of arthritis that may be causing your back pain.


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the back. It is a degenerative disease where the cartilage between the joints deteriorates over time.

The joint pain that accompanies osteoarthritis tends to worsen with activity. The risk for osteoarthritis also increases with age.
Osteoarthritis most often causes pain in the lower back and/or neck areas.


Spondyloarthritis is the general term for multiple types of arthritis that have similar causes and symptoms. 

Types of arthritis that fall under spondyloarthritis all cause inflammation in the area of the spine. 

The type that is most likely to affect the back is axial spondyloarthritis.

Axial Spondyloarthritis

Axial spondyloarthritis is broken into non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis cannot be seen through X-rays whereas it can be seen with ankylosing spondylitis.
With axial spondyloarthritis, the immune system becomes overactive and can cause bony growths near the vertebrae, stiffness, and pain.

Undifferentiated Spondyloarthritis

Different types of spondyloarthritis can have similar symptoms making it difficult to diagnose. Until a definitive diagnosis is possible, a patient may be diagnosed with undifferentiated spondyloarthritis.

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis commonly impacts peripheral joints such as the knees or hands, but it can also cause back pain.
This type of arthritis is often linked to psoriasis, an autoimmune disease affecting the skin causing a red, scaly rash.

Reactive Arthritis

Reactive Arthritis most often presents after an infection in the gastrointestinal, urinary, or genital systems. Reactive arthritis can cause inflammation not just in joints, but the eyes, intestines, kidneys, and bladder as well.

Enteropathic Arthritis

A small percentage of people diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease may be diagnosed with enteropathic arthritis. The sacroiliac joint is most likely affecting resulting in pain in the lower back.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a result of the body’s immune system attacking itself causing inflammation and pain in the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis most often appears in the hands and feet first, but it can cause pain in the spine, mostly in the neck.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis most often occurs with osteoarthritis or ankylosing spondylitis.
It causes ligaments to become thick and vertebrae to develop bony overgrowths causing a narrowing of the spinal column.
This results in pressure on the nerves in the back and in addition to causing pain may cause leg numbness and/or bowel issues.

Back Pain

Other Possible Reasons for Back Pain

Back pain isn’t always related to arthritis though. Other possible causes of back pain are:
  • Sciatica – the sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down to the foot. The pain is often in the lower back/buttock/thigh area.
  • Scoliosis – physical changes to the spine (causing it to develop curvature(s)) that cause muscle imbalance resulting in back pain.
  • Fibromyalgia – a chronic disorder resulting in widespread pain that may include back pain, among other symptoms.
  • Muscle Strain – sometimes muscles can become overstretched or overworked resulting in muscle strain and soreness.
  • Herniated Disc – when the inside part of the disc protrudes outside the disc and puts pressure on a surrounding nerve back pain will likely occur.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease – after an injury, or through certain lifestyle factors, nerves can develop in the area of the disc that causes chronic back pain.
  • Fractures Related to Osteoporosis – as we age, our bones lose their density causing fractures to become more likely. If a fracture occurs in the back it may result in back pain.

 You’ll want to consult your doctor to rule out any of these other causes of back pain.

How Arthritis in Your Back Is Diagnosed

Arthritis is not an illness that should be self-diagnosed.
It is important that your doctor is able to do a thorough physical exam, and is aware of your full medical history to come to the correct diagnosis.
Your doctor may recommend imaging tests like X-rays, bone scans, an MRI, or a CT scan to confine a diagnosis.

What Can Be Done for Arthritis in Your Back

There are several available treatments to help with back pain caused by arthritis.
Your doctor may prescribe one or multiple kinds of treatment depending on the severity of your symptoms or the progression of your illness.
The treatment plan developed will be the most likely to minimize pain and prevent further damage.

Medication for back pain


Three main groups of medications are used to treat pain from arthritis. These are:
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)

 NSAIDs can help with pain relief, corticosteroids can help reduce inflammation, and DMARDs target the immune system for types of arthritis triggered by an immune response.

Lifestyle Changes

Your doctor may recommend a change in diet or exercise to keep your joints and surrounding cartilage and muscles healthy. 

Excess weight can also cause unnecessary stress on painful joints so weight management is another lifestyle change often advised to arthritis sufferers.
Some types of arthritis benefit from physical therapy. It can help to improve your flexibility and range of motion, as well as posture.


Surgery is generally the last course of action a doctor will recommend for the treatment of arthritis.

Your doctor will likely recommend you try medications or lifestyle changes before resorting to surgery as a last resort.

 If your treatment requires surgery, a spinal fusion or a disc(s) replacement may help.

1 comment

Janice Lewis

Very helpful information.

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