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When back pain may mean arthritis

From cartilage breakdown to joint inflammation – these back problems may be caused by arthritis. Learn about the diseases that can affect the back.

About 80 percent of back pain is acute and usually lasts one to seven days. Otherwise it’s considered chronic back pain and may be caused by arthritis.

The lower back is the most common site of arthritis back pain. Several types are part of a group of conditions called spondylarthropathies (meaning spinal arthritis).

Spondylarthropathies can affect adults and children. These conditions include:


Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a chronic inflammatory disease that primarily affects hip joints and the joint that connects the bone at the bottom of the spine to the pelvis (sacroiliac). Ankylosing means stiff or rigid and spondylitis means inflammation of the spine.

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA)

Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis that affects joints and usually the skin (psoriasis). For about 20 percent of people with PsA, the disease involves the spine (axial arthritis). In some cases, bony overgrowth can cause two or more vertebrae to grow together (fuse), causing stiffness.

Reactive arthritis

Reactive arthritis often occurs after the genital, urinary or gastrointestinal system gets infected. This condition may cause inflammation of the joints, eyes as well the intestines, kidneys or bladder. The sacroiliac joint can be affected.

When back pain may mean arthritis 

Enteropathic arthritis

This form of occurs in about five percent of people with inflammatory bowel disease, which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. It commonly affects the sacroiliac joint causing lower back pain.

Other types of arthritis that may cause back pain include:

Osteoarthritis (OA)

The most common form of arthritis, OA occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints breaks down or wears away. In the spine, this breakdown affects the facet joints, where the vertebrae join. As a result, movement of the bones can cause irritation, further damage and the formation of bony outgrowths called spurs. These spurs can press on nerves, causing pain.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is caused by bony overgrowth of the vertebrae and thickening of the ligaments. It tends to occur along with osteoarthritis or ankylosing spondylitis. The overgrowth can cause the spinal column to narrow and press on its nerves. Because the affected nerves have many functions, the condition may cause many lower body problems, including back pain, pain or numbness in the legs and bowel problems.

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR)

An inflammatory disorder that causes widespread muscle pain and stiffness, PMR mainly affects the neck, shoulders, upper arms, lower back, thighs and hips.


An arthritis-related condition, fibromyalgia causes chronic, widespread muscle pain and fatigue. The lower back is a common site of fibromyalgia pain.


Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become brittle and prone to break with slight trauma. When it affects the spine, weakened vertebrae can break (compression fracture).  The resulting back pain can be severe.

Paget’s disease of bone

Pagets Disease is a chronic disorder that bones to break down and form too quickly.  So, they may become enlarged, misshapen and weakened. The disease usually affects the small bones that form the backbone.

Common problems that also cause back pain include muscle spasms, a fracture, abnormal curving of the spine(scoliosis), an inflamed sciatic nerve (the largest nerve in the body that runs from the lower part of the spinal cord through the buttock and down the back of the leg) or an injury to a disk (shock absorber) in the back.

Learn more about each condition in our resource center.  The most important next step is to get an accurate arthritis diagnosis.  Discuss your symptoms with your primary care doctor.  You may be referred to a rheumatologist or orthopaedist, who have specialized training in the treatment of arthritis and related conditions.

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