What are those strange things called bone spurs that show up on an x-ray? Also known as osteophytes, these bony protuberances are most likely to appear after the age of 60. Bone spurs are areas where the bone overgrows along the edge of a joint. Should you be concerned if you have them?
You can develop bone spurs in a number of places, including your heels, spine, hips, knees, toes, and hands. Yet there are a lot of misconceptions about bone spurs. Let’s look at what you should know about this common entity.
You’re More Likely to Have Them if You Have Osteoarthritis
The most common cause of bone spurs is osteoarthritis, a common joint problem that leads to erosion of the cartilage that covers the ends of bones. When cartilage wears away from the tips of bones, it creates an environment that fosters the overgrowth of bone and bone spurs. As the cartilage thins down, bones can rub against each other, creating irritation that causes new bone to form, and that creates a bone spur. New bone forms as the body senses damage and lays down new bone tissue to compensate and repair the damage.
If the irritation persists, bone spurs may grow large enough to form bumpy areas under the skin that you can see and feel. If the spurs press on a nerve in the spine, spurs can interfere with movement or cause numbness, tingling, or weakness. If they become large enough, they can cause more serious symptoms such as weakness.
Bone spurs also form as a natural part of aging or in response to injury. People who work jobs that require repetitive movements are also at greater risk of developing bone spurs. Dancers, particularly ballerinas, are at a substantial risk of developing bone spurs in the feet. Still, in most cases, there’s underlying joint degeneration from osteoarthritis that drives bone spurs to form.
You Can Have Bone Spurs and Not Know It
The first sign you have a bone spur may be seeing one on X-ray. One of the most common ways people discover bone spurs is when they get an imaging study for some other reason and bone spurs show up, incidentally. Spurs often cause no symptoms unless they grow large enough to press on a nerve or other structures close by. However, larger ones may cause discomfort when you move or bend a certain way. For example, if you have bone spurs on your knees, you may feel discomfort if you bend your knees.
Most Bone Spurs Show Up on X-Ray
Most people discover they have a bone spur when they get an X-ray for some other reason. Most bone spurs show up on a plain X-rays, although some health care professionals recommend an MRI or CT scan if bone spurs cause symptoms. These more advanced imaging studies are better at showing the exact location and whether the spurs are impinging upon other structures and the exact size and shape.
You Don’t Need to Treat Bone Spurs Unless They Cause Symptoms
Since many bone spurs cause no limitations or symptoms, they don’t require treatment unless they interfere with your daily activities. Even if the spurs cause mild symptoms such as pain, most doctors recommend treating them conservatively by applying ice and doing gentle stretches each day.
Some health care professionals also recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation. However, these medications can harm your kidneys if you take them longer term. So, they’re more of a short-term symptom reliever rather than a cure. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet may offer some benefit for symptom relief, too.
In certain areas, bone spurs can be more troublesome. For example, spurs in the vertebral column may grow large enough to press on nerves in the spinal. Depending on where the bone spur is, it can cause numbness, tingling, or pain in the upper or lower extremities. Physical therapy or cortisone injections may help sometimes, but if the symptoms are severe, surgery may be the only option.
You Can’t Completely Prevent Bone Spurs
If you’re concerned about bone spurs, you might wonder what you can do to prevent them. There’s no sure way to avoid them, but you can lower the risk by not engaging in repetitive movements. Staying a healthy body weight also lowers the risk as carrying excess weight places more stress on the joints. Ongoing stress may cause degeneration of the cartilage in the joint and trigger bone spurs to form.
To lower the risk of bone spurs in the heel, wear shoes with good heel support to reduce the impact on your heel when it strikes the ground. Shoes with good heel support also reduce the impact on your knees and hips. Be careful not to choose shoes that fit too tightly, as that will create friction that can lead to bone spurs.
If you have plantar fasciitis, where the plantar fascia becomes inflamed, you’re at higher risk of developing bone spurs in the feet and it’s even more important that you wear shoes with good support. Exercise, in moderation, may be beneficial for lowering the risk of bone spurs if you wear shoes that support your feet, limit exercise on hard surfaces, and avoid repetitive activities. For example, bone spurs, especially in the feet, are more common in runners and athletes who jump, because of the impact and the repetitive nature of the movements they do.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, you’re a bit more bone spur savvy now! Spurs are fairly common and often don’t cause symptoms. However, they can be problematic, especially if you have them in your spine and they press on nerves in the spinal canal. If your doctor finds a bone spur on X-ray and you’re not having symptoms, there’s no need to do anything. However, taking steps like losing weight, if you’re overweight, changing your shoe wear, altering how you exercise, and avoiding high-impact exercise on hard surfaces may lower your risk of developing new ones.
- Cleveland Clinic. “Bone Spurs (Osteophytes)”
- Michigan Medicine. University of Michigan. “Bone Spurs”
- Cleveland Clinic. Bone spurs: Management and treatment.
- com. “Ask Candace: Heel Spurs and Plantar Fasciitis”
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Bone spurs”
- com. “Bone Spurs: What You Should Know About Osteophytosis”