Spondylitis vs. Spondylosis: What’s the Difference?

Reviewed on 3/22/2021

Spondylitis occurs due to inflammation that causes arthritis while spondylosis is wear and tear of the vertebrae that results in disk and joint degeneration.
Spondylitis occurs due to inflammation that causes arthritis while spondylosis is wear and tear of the vertebrae that results in disk and joint degeneration.

Spondylosis and spondylitis are both conditions of the joints in your spine. Your spine is made up of bones called vertebrae, and the material between each vertebra in the joints are called disks. The joints and disks, over time, can become worn out or inflamed from use.

Spondylitis is the result of an inflammatory condition of the joint that causes arthritis. Spondylosis describes the vertebral joints' general wear and tear that results in degeneration of the disks and joints. 

The two conditions might sound similar, but they result from different influences on the body and develop into different outcomes. Learn the difference between the two, what causes them, and how they are treated.

What is spondylitis vs. spondylosis?

Spondylosis and spondylitis are two different conditions that require other treatments.

What is spondylitis?

Spondylitis is inflammation of the joints between the vertebrae, which is similar to arthritis. The joints can swell and grow, eventually fusing over time. When the bones begin to fuse, the condition is referred to as ankylosing spondylitis. As the bones grow towards each other and fuse, the spine becomes less mobile and flexible.

What is spondylosis?

Spondylosis is also arthritic, but the condition is related to wear and tear on the joints as you age. As you go about your life, the joints' disks become less soft as they lose water and slowly get more rigid. In most people, the disks wear down, causing gaps within the joints.

The bones grow to make up for the loss of support and form bone spurs in the joints. The bone spurs can rub together and cause pain and stiffness.

What are symptoms of spondylitis vs. spondylosis? 

Many of the symptoms of the two conditions are the same. It can be difficult to tell just based on symptoms which condition you may have. To know for sure, you’ll need to see a doctor.

Symptoms of spondylitis

You may experience symptoms such as:

  • A stiff back
  • Soreness in your back
  • Pain in your back
  • More severe symptoms after resting
  • Waking up while sleeping because of back pain
  • Tingling in your extremities

Depending on where the spondylitis is most present, the pain can focus on that area. For example, most people experience the pain from the condition first in the sacroiliac and lumbar joints, where most of the physical stress on the body occurs. 

Symptoms of spondylosis

Spondylosis also affects the spine similarly, but some people don’t experience any symptoms at all.

This condition causes the growth of bone spurs, which can impede nerve function by pinching the nerves. You might experience symptoms similar to spondylitis. Some signs you might encounter are:

  • Neck pain that may extend to arms or shoulders
  • Headaches
  • Problems balancing
  • Bladder or bowel control problems
  • Grinding feeling when moving the neck
  • Neck stiffness
  • Numbness in shoulders, arms, or hands
  • Weakness in arms and legs

What are causes of spondylitis vs. spondylosis? 

Spondylitis causes

Doctors are unsure of what specifically causes spondylitis. However, they believe environmental factors and genetics play a large role in its development. They have identified specific genes that increase a person’s risk of developing spondylitis. 

Environmental factors that affect the development of the condition are varied but could include:

  • Living conditions
  • Exposure to certain toxins or chemicals
  • Joint injuries
  • Stressful events

Spondylosis causes

Doctors have identified what causes spondylosis. Age and wear and tear of the joints and ligaments cause the disks to deteriorate, and the joints to grow spurs that can cause the symptoms. 

How to diagnose spondylitis vs. spondylosis

When you see your doctor, they may give you a physical examination and ask about your medical history. If you’ve had any neck injuries, they will likely ask you about them, along with your symptoms. The doctors may also check your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs to see if they’re working properly.

Both conditions present similar symptoms, so it is difficult for doctors to diagnose either of them without imaging. You’ll likely get an MRI or CT scan, as well as x-rays. These will help the doctor get a full view of your spine and determine which condition you have.

Treatments for spondylitis vs. spondylosis

There are not many options for doctors if you have spondylitis. Spondylosis, on the other hand, does have a few more treatments to relieve pain.

Treatments for spondylitis

When doctors treat spondylitis, they focus on relieving any pain you might be experiencing and on improving your quality of life. They will prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and talk to you about exercise and its importance to mobility. If necessary, they might try steroid injections in your spinal joints to help with inflammation and relieve pain.

Surgery is the last option for spondylitis and is only used if there is a severe impedance on your life quality or intolerable pain.

Treatments for spondylosis

Spondylosis is generally treated with ice and heat. Your doctor may give you some anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce swelling and prescribe physical therapy and exercise to help you stay mobile.

If these do not help, doctors might try steroid injections into your spinal joints. As a last resort, they can perform different types of surgery designed to improve the condition.

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References
SOURCES:

Columbia University Department of Neurology: "Cervical Spondylosis."

Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: "Ankylosing Spondylitis."

National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: "Ankylosing spondylitis."

OrthoInfo: "Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck)."

Spondylitis Association of America: "Environmental Triggers, the Epigenome, and Disease Progression in AS."

The Journal of Rheumatology: "Influence of environmental factors on disease activity in spondyloarthritis: a prospective cohort study."

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: "Lumbar Spondylosis (Degeneration)."

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