We all deal with minor aches and pains from time to time. But as we get older, pain can become a more frequent part of our lives, especially when it comes to our necks and backs.
Spondylosis – a medical term referring to age-related changes of the spine – is a common reason for adult neck and back pain. While it’s a medical diagnosis, it’s also a normal part of human aging and is not always associated with pain.
While some people may not experience any spondylosis symptoms, if you do have symptoms, you’re probably looking for the best ways to treat and manage things like pain, stiffness, muscle spasms and more.
The changes to your bones and spinal discs from age cannot be reversed. But the good news is that pain from spondylosis is treatable and there are ways to decrease – or even eliminate – the symptoms of spondylosis. Many people with spondylosis don’t experience any symptoms.
Below, we cover how symptoms can be managed at home, nonsurgical therapies from doctors and specialists, and when more advanced spine care like surgery may be recommended.
At-home spondylosis treatment options
Whether you experience cervical spondylosis (neck), thoracic spondylosis (mid back) or lumbar spondylosis (low back), you want to know: What is the best treatment for spondylosis?
The truth is that there is no one “best” treatment. Rather, a combination of treatments tailored to your unique symptomsis the best option. And a big part of this will be finding what works for you to manage symptoms at home.
A combination of cold and heat therapy
Pain and stiffness from degenerative spine changes can be chronic for some people. But using a combination of both cold and heat therapy when it makes sense can be a big help.
For example, applying ice or a cold compress after exercise or pain flare-up can help reduce inflammation and reduce pain. But using a heating pad or hot compress on a regular basis can help improve blood flow to relax muscles and joints, and promote healing.
If you’re using a bag of ice or a cold compress, ice your neck or back for 15-20 minutes a few times throughout the day. If you’re using heat, the same recommendations apply, though you can apply a low level of heat for as long as two hours at a time.
Make sure to use a towel as a protective barrier between your skin and the ice pack or heating pad, and monitor your skin to make sure it’s not getting too cold or too hot. If you have neuropathy or sensory deficits, hot or cold therapy may not be safe for you, so talk to your doctor first.
Medications for spondylosis symptom relief
There’s no specific “spondylosis medication." Rather there are a range of over-the-counter and prescription medications that may be recommended to help relieve spondylosis-related pain, stiffness and muscle spasms.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) are commonly recommended to help relieve pain and inflammation. They’re available at any drugstore without a prescription, but it’s important to follow dosing recommendations. You should also talk with your doctor before starting a new medication.
If over-the-counter pain relievers can’t offer enough relief for pain, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids to use in the short-term. This type of medication works by acting like a specific hormone in your body that naturally reduces inflammation, which may be the cause of your pain and discomfort.
Muscle spasms are uncontrollable, often painful contractions of muscles. If you have spondylosis-related muscle spasms, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxer.
Muscle relaxers are taken orally, and they work with your central nervous system to prevent your brain from receiving pain signals from your nerves. That means that if nerve pain associated with muscle spasms is one of your spondylosis symptoms, muscle relaxers may be a helpful addition to your treatment regimen. However, they should only be used for a few weeks at a time.
You’ve likely heard that antidepressants help stabilize and improve various mood disorders. But you may not know that they’re also a tool used for improving chronic pain conditions all over the body, including the neck and back.
Certain antidepressant medications alter signals in the central nervous system and can help reduce the experience of pain. It’s important to know that antidepressants take a little time, usually at least 2 weeks, to take effect. They need to be taken regularly to sustain positive effects like pain relief.
Anti-seizure medications as a spondylosis treatment? In some cases, yes. Depending on your overall health, health history and spondylosis diagnosis, this type of prescription medication may be recommended to help block pain signals related to nerve irritation or compression.
While rare, opioids like hydrocodone (Vicodin)and oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet) may be prescribed for short-term pain management while you heal following an injury or surgery. However, opioids are powerful drugs and overuse can lead to addiction, plus they can make pain worse in the long run. So, they should only be used as directed and not as long-term treatment for spondylosis, or any other condition.
Spondylosis exercises and stretches
The best exercises for your spondylosis will depend on the location of your symptoms. Working with a physical therapist is the best way to get an exercise program tailored for your specific symptoms. A couple of good stretches to start with include a head tilt stretch, knee-to-chest stretch and the bird dog stretch.
Taking steps to live a healthy, active lifestyle is important for improving your overall health. So, certain lifestyle choices can help reduce neck and back pain, and improve your quality of life. A few important lifestyle considerations include:
- Staying active – Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to manage and treat spondylosis symptoms. That’s because activity keeps your body in working order, helping you maintain balance, stability, range of motion, a heathy weight and more. For starters, if you normally sit for an extended period, as little as 5-10 minutes of walking at intervals throughout the day will help. But spine physical therapy, which we’ll talk more about later, can also be an important and helpful tool for managing spondylosis.
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet – Eating a balanced diet can help you avoid excessive weight gain, and when paired with regular exercise, can help you lose any extra weight that may contribute to neck and back pain. You should try to work in as many nutrient-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, lean meats and vegetables as possible, while reducing processed foods.
- Reducing stress – Less stress can help decrease muscle tension in your neck, shoulders and back. Deep breathing, meditation, taking a quick break from a task, or listening to soothing music are some easy options to relieve typical daily stressors.
- Getting enough sleep – Getting the right amount of rest each night is an important part of the body’s repair and recovery process. Create an evening routine that promotes relaxation before heading to sleep. Also try to regulate your environment so that heat, cold or noise don’t keep you awake or wake you up.
Back braces and soft cervical collars
Sometimes doctors recommend back braces and soft cervical collars, which are used to limit motion so your spinal muscles can rest, while also providing support.
However, wearing a brace or collar is often done for just short periods of time. That’s because limiting movement for too long can lead to a decrease in muscle strength, which could increase back and neck problems.
Specialty therapies for spondylosis treatment
In addition to managing symptoms at home, getting help from specialists may be important, too.
Physical therapy for spondylosis
As we mentioned earlier, staying active is key to keeping your body in working order. But an important part of managing spondylosis, is targeting the specific areas of your spine that have weakened with age and working to strengthen them. That’s where physical therapy comes in.
Spine physical therapists are experts in how the body moves. They can help teach you specific exercises to strengthen and condition your neck, mid-back and low back to help relieve pain and even heal tissues.
Depending on how long you’ve experienced pain, a more intensive physical therapy program like TRIA’s Neck and Back Strengthening Program may be recommended. These spine-strengthening programs are specifically designed for people with chronic pain.
Chiropractic care is an option for managing spondylosis neck and back symptoms. In addition to hot and cold therapy, ultrasound and massage, chiropractors often perform spinal adjustments – also known as spinal manipulation – to temporarily reduce pain.
Acupuncture is a traditional eastern medicine practice that can reduce back pain for many people. During a session, a trained acupuncturist inserts extremely thin needles at strategic points and varying depths in different parts of your body to stimulate blood flow, release hormones that may improve your mood, and block pain signals to reduce pain.
Trained physicians can perform injections, or even destroy specific nerve structures, to offer durable pain relief. While not a permanent treatment for age-related degeneration, interventional pain procedures can provide relief for many months or years for some people.
When is cervical, thoracic or lumbar spondylosis surgery recommended?
Surgery is used as a spondylosis treatment in very specific instances. For example, if spondylosis has led to nerve or spinal cord compression, surgery may be necessary to relieve the pressure that causes pain, numbness or weakness in the spine or extremities. In addition, surgery may be recommended to stabilize a part of the spine to help prevent abnormal movement of the vertebrae and relieve pain.
Don’t ignore neck and back pain
While you can’t stop the aging process, you can take steps to manage and improve neck and back pain from spondylosis.
Taking over-the-counter pain relievers when you need them, icing or heating your sore spots, and staying active are key to managing painful symptoms. But working with a spine physical therapist can help strengthen your neck and back to reduce and even heal pain.
However, if at-home methods and physical therapy have lost their effectiveness or you’re experiencing new pain, working with a spine care specialist to discuss other treatment options, like injections or surgery, can be your next step.