The spinal column is made up of 33 different bones, or vertebrae, that are grouped into five distinct categories: thoracic, cervical, lumbar, sacrum and coccyx. While all these bones work together to allow the body to remain in an upright position, the effects of age and a lifetime of stress on the vertebrae can damage the structure of these bones and, as a result, of the spine itself. And when this occurs, a condition known as spondylosis is diagnosed and categorized into one of three types. Cervical spondylosis affects the bones in the neck; thoracic spondylosis the bones that make up the chest wall; and lumbar spondylosis, or the bones of the lower back.

While the effects of decades of stress and strain on the vertebrae can result in spondylosis, so too can a deterioration of a vertebral disc of the spine, which occurs when that disc has a drastic change in moisture and hardens in a process called calcification. Additionally, other underlying conditions—such as congenital spinal stenosis—can lead to this disorder.

Symptoms vary depending on which of the three areas of the spine is affected. Those suffering from cervical (neck) spondylosis experience numbness in their fingers and changes in muscle tone in their arms and hands, possibly accompanied by some degree of pain. Those who develop spondylosis in their lower back (lumbar) will have pain moving down their legs and into their feet, along with changes in sensation.

Imaging technologies such as simple x-rays will aid a physician in determining whether or not there is a narrowing of the space between the vertebrae and/or a deterioration of those vertebrae or the discs of the spine. Additionally, if a physician detects osteophytes—bony outgrowths associated with the degeneration of cartilage at the facet joints—it’s likely that osteoarthritis, an underlying cause of sponsylosis, is present.

Surgery is rare for spondylosis: nearly all cases can be treated with physical therapy, specific exercises, bracing devices, the application of heat or electrical stimulation and pain medications.