Have you been dealing with chronic stiffness, achiness, or sharp pains in your joints? If so, you might be dealing with a bone spur. Bone spurs are bony growths that form along the edges of bones, and they are especially common in joints that get a lot of wear and tear. While they are usually not a serious condition, bone spurs can still be painful and decrease your mobility.
Let’s take a look at what bone spurs are, what causes them, where they develop, how they are diagnosed, and most importantly, your treatment options. We are going to look at both conservative approaches like physical therapy and medication as well as surgical bone spur removal. We will talk about prevention strategies to help stop bone spurs before they start and home remedies to manage your symptoms.
Here is your complete guide to bone spurs.
What Is a Bone Spur?
Bone spurs, also called osteophytes, are bony projections that form along the edges of bones, and they are especially common around joints. Bone spurs are made up of calcium deposits and bone material (osseous tissue) that your body makes to repair areas damaged by inflammation or wear and tear.
As your joints break down due to osteoarthritis, ageing, injuries, or repetitive stress, your body tries to stabilise them by forming extra bone. However, these bony growths can end up rubbing against soft tissues like nerves, tendons, ligaments or muscles surrounding the joint. This leads to tendon injuries, ligament tears, swelling, stiffness and restricted range of motion.
Bone spurs are not always something that you notice, but when they create irritation they can seriously impact joint function. While they form in the body’s attempt to protect joints, bone spurs themselves are not a normal part of healthy bone anatomy and represent areas of calcium buildup or bone remodelling due to underlying joint damage.
A bone spur may cause no symptoms at all if it is not rubbing on neighbouring tissues but, if your bone spur is large enough, it can grate against nearby tendons, ligaments, or muscles. In this case, you might feel distinct bone spur symptoms.
A bone spur can cause a range of sensations, depending on its size and location. Common kinds of discomfort linked to a bone spur include:
- Aching, tenderness or soreness: You may have a constant, dull pain around your affected joint. This might get worse with activity and feel better when you rest.
- Stiffness: Reduced flexibility and a limited range of motion in your joint is common. That might mean that you’re not able to fully straighten or bend your joint.
- Sharp, stabbing pain: It is common to feel brief, sudden pain when you move your joint a certain way. This happens when the spur rubs against the surrounding tissues and causes inflammation.
- Throbbing: You may have been feeling an intense, pounding sensation that radiates up or down your limb.
- Grating or crunching: A rough, grinding or popping feeling within the joint when you’re moving can happen because the spur is rubbing against your bone.
- Swelling: A buildup of fluid can cause puffiness, warmth, and redness around your joint.
- Numbness or tingling: If the spur presses on a nerve, it can cause numbness or a pins and needles sensation.
- A lump: You may have a noticeable protrusion or feel like there is a foreign object inside of your joint when you move.
It is important to keep in mind that the level of pain and degree of impairment will depend on the size and location of the bone spur. In most cases, heel, hip, knee and shoulder spurs are more painful than in other locations. The goal of treatment will be to relieve inflammation and friction against the spur.
It is worth noting that bone spurs themselves have no nerve endings and cannot feel pain, but the irritation they cause to the surrounding areas can be painful and affect your mobility.
Bone spurs often develop in the joints that get the most wear and tear, which is why they are especially common in the spine, heels, shoulders, knees, hips and elbows. These spurs can cause pain, inflammation, and a restricted range of motion in the surrounding area if they rub against or impinge nearby tissues.
Bone spurs mostly form in and around joints, but they can happen anywhere where you have bone tissue. The most common locations for bone spurs include the following:
- Spine: Bone spurs can form along the edges of the vertebrae in your neck (cervical spine) or lower back (lumbar spine). These are often caused by osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease.
- Heels: Heel spurs are calcium deposits that cause a bony protrusion on the underside of your heel bone (calcaneus). They are commonly linked with plantar fasciitis.
- Shoulders: Bone spurs often form around the joint where your collarbone (clavicle) meets your shoulder blade (acromion). This can cause shoulder impingement syndrome.
- Knees: Spurs can happen in areas where your tendons or ligaments attach to the shinbone (tibia) or kneecap. This is common in people with osteoarthritis.
- Hips: Bone spurs can develop around the joint where your thigh bone (femur) meets your hip bone (pelvis). Spurs are common when you have osteoarthritis or femoroacetabular impingement.
- Elbows: Spurs sometimes occur in the elbow joint, where density forms around the humerus bone near your ulna (one of the two long bones in the forearm). This is common among golfers and baseball pitchers.
It’s time to see your doctor if you have persistent joint pain or a limited range of motion that stops you from doing your daily activities. It is important to make note of your symptoms and when they started. This will help you gauge the progression and be able to communicate key information to your healthcare professional.
Make an appointment with your doctor if:
- Pain gets worse even after rest, ice, and over-the-counter medications
- Pain disturbs your sleep
- Pain persists for more than a few weeks
- You have swelling or redness
- You have difficulty using the injured joint
You might be interested in these exercises to improve shoulder mobility.
There are certain factors that can increase your risk of developing bone spurs, such as the following:
- Osteoarthritis: This degenerative joint disease causes damage to the cartilage that protects the bones of your joints. Bone spurs near joints are often affected by osteoarthritis.
- Ageing: The risk of bone spurs increases as you age. As you get older, the wear and tear on your body can cause bone spur formation.
- Abnormalities in bones and joints: Some people are born with feet, knees, or certain issues that are more likely to develop bone spurs. For example, if you are born with flat feet or uneven leg lengths, you are at risk of developing bone spurs in your feet.
- Activities that put repetitive stress on joints: Jobs or hobbies that repeatedly stress the same joint, such as dancing, running, or heavy lifting, can increase your risk of bone spurs.
- Prior injury or trauma: Damage from previous fractures, surgeries, or meniscus tears can lead to bone spur formation.
To diagnose a bone spur, your doctor will assess your signs and symptoms as well as review your medical history. Diagnostic tests may include some of the following options:
- X-rays: These tests use low levels of radiation to create images of your bone. X-rays can reveal bone spurs and help determine their location and size.
- Computed tomography (CT Scan): This type of test takes X-ray images from different angles, which are combined by a computer to create cross-sectional images of your internal structures. A CT scan provides a more detailed view of bone spurs than an X-ray does.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Instead of radiation, MRIs use a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed pictures of bone and soft tissues. An MRI can assess damage to tissues surrounding a bone spur.
The goal of treatment for bone spurs is to relieve pain and improve function. Nonsurgical treatments are always the first approach and may include some of these common treatments:
- Rest: Avoid activities that aggravate your symptoms. If you’re active, it’s important to take a break from high-impact exercises and sports and switch to lower-impact activities like swimming and cycling.
- Ice: Apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel to the affected area for about 15 minutes a few times per day. The ice will reduce inflammation and is an especially important treatment to start at the first signs of pain.
- Medications: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, will help to relieve pain and swelling. Your doctor may prescribe stronger medication if over-the-counter options aren’t working for you.
- Shoe inserts: Padding or customised shoe inserts can reduce friction against a bone spur and relieve the pressure that is causing pain.
- Physical therapy: Stretching and strengthening exercises may improve your range of motion and strengthen key supporting muscles.
- Steroid injections: Cortisone medication injected directly into your joints may give you temporary relief from inflammation and pain. It is important to note, however, that long-term use of injections can do more harm than good.
If non-surgical bone spur treatments don’t work for you, surgical removal of the bone spur may be your best option. The spur can be shaved off during an arthroscopic procedure or through open surgery. Afterwards, rehabilitation exercises will help strengthen your joint post-surgery.
Learn more about HEAT and ICE therapy here.
It is always a good idea to arrive at a doctor’s appointment well-prepared. Here is some of the key information your healthcare professional is going to ask you for:
- A detailed description of your symptoms and when they began
- Your full medical history, including existing conditions and any previous injuries
- Your family medical history, including arthritis or any bone or joint disorders
- A list of all medications, vitamins, or supplements you’re taking
Before you arrive, it’s also worth writing down any questions that you want to ask your doctor so that you remember all of the key points and can take notes during the session.
During your appointment, your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- Where exactly are you feeling the pain?
- Does any particular activity make the pain better or worse?
- Have you had an injury, fall, or trauma to the affected area?
- Does anything, like rest or medication, relieve the pain?
- Have you noticed any swelling, redness, or stiffness?
- Do you have trouble moving your joint with a full range of motion?
Your doctor will perform a physical exam of the affected joint and might also order imaging tests, such as X-rays or an MRI. Treatment usually begins with conservative options, and surgery is rarely needed.
While bone spurs sometimes form as part of the natural ageing process, there are things you can do to lower your risk of getting a bone spur, such as:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts more stress on your joints.
- Use proper form when exercising. Lift objects with your legs, not your back. Avoid movements that strain your joints.
- Stretch and strengthen your muscles. Good flexibility and strong muscles support and protect joints.
- Wear supportive footwear. Choose shoes with padding, arch support, and a roomy toe box.
- Use custom orthotics. Inserts that improve foot alignment can distribute weight evenly.
- Take breaks at work. Avoid staying in one position too long.
- Maintain good posture. Poor posture causes extra wear and tear on joints.
- Use proper techniques for lifting or repetitive motions. Get training on new workouts or routines that you’re unfamiliar with.
- Don’t push through joint pain. Give yourself a break at the first sign of pain.
Bone spurs are usually not a serious condition. Many people have them without ever even knowing it. Bone spurs in certain locations, however, can cause intense pain, swelling, stiffness, and other annoying symptoms.
Large bone spurs or clusters of bone spurs that rub against soft tissues like tendons can lead to tendon damage over time. Constant inflammation from bone spurs also increases the risk of osteoarthritis in the affected joint.
While it is rare, a bone spur can press on your nerves or spinal cord, potentially leading to numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness. A large spur in certain locations could potentially restrict joint movement if it blocks the joint.
Although bone spurs themselves are not inherently dangerous, the pain and impaired physical function they trigger in some people do impact quality of life. Getting proper treatment for the first signs of pain will go a long way to help manage symptoms.
While small bone spurs may not cause problems, there are some treatment options for getting rid of troublesome bone spurs:
- Medications: Anti-inflammatory medications like NSAIDs can temporarily relieve pain and inflammation.
- Steroid injections: Cortisone shots directly into the joint provide short-term relief by reducing inflammation.
- Physical therapy: Stretching and exercises strengthen muscles around the joint and improve range of motion.
- Orthotics: Custom shoe inserts help redistribute weight away from the bone spur.
- Surgery: Bone spur removal through arthroscopic or open surgery is an option for severe cases.
Lifestyle measures like maintaining a healthy weight, using proper form when exercising, and avoiding activities that aggravate the joint can also help manage bone spur discomfort.
Bone spurs sometimes go away on their own, but this mainly occurs with very small spurs. Complete bone spur regression is not very common.
However, it is possible for small to medium bone spurs to gradually reduce in size over time. The bone remodelling process allows old bone tissue to be reabsorbed while new bone tissue forms to take its place.
As this regeneration takes place, bone spur protrusions are sometimes partially reabsorbed. In most cases, however, a portion of the bone spur will remain.
Larger bone spurs are less likely to fully disappear. The constant tension and wear and tear on the affected joint continue to stimulate the build-up of extra bone tissue.
If you’re dealing with a painful bone spur, don’t wait another day to get help. Our expert team can assess and diagnose the cause of your pain and get you back on your feet in no time. Our sports injury clinic also offers ACL tear surgery.
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About the Author
Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.
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