What are bone spurs?

Bone spurs, also called osteophytes, are abnormal bone growths that occur most commonly where bones connect. The bone growths are smooth and develop over time, often without detection, until the growth causes discomfort or other issues. Bone spurs become more common as you age and as conditions like arthritis continue to develop. 

The spurs themselves are not painful, but they can cause pain or discomfort if the bone growth presses into nearby tendons or nerves. The symptoms that result from bone spurs are manageable and are treatable in most cases without having to resort to surgery or more intensive treatments. 

What causes bone spurs?

Back to top

Bone spurs form as a result of damage to joints caused either by injury or from degenerative bone diseases like osteoarthritis. Conditions such as osteoarthritis wear away the cartilage between the joints, causing inflammation and the creation of new bone in the area. Without the cushioning cartilage, the body senses that the joints have been damaged and attempts to reinforce the joint with new bone, creating the bone spur. 

In addition to osteoarthritis as a cause of bone spurs, there are other ways that a bone spur would form. Often, athletes have bone spurs from repeated and strenuous activity or from an injury of a joint or muscle tendon. 

What are symptoms of bone spurs?

Back to top

Bone spurs may form without causing any symptoms. Because the bone builds up over time, a lot of time can pass before you ever realize you have a bone spur. Bone spurs do cause symptoms if the bone spur starts to restrict your movement, when it rubs up against surrounding tissue or bones, or begins to put pressure on nerves. 

If a bone spur starts to cause symptoms, there are common sensations. If you experience these symptoms, you should have a conversation with your physician about a possible diagnosis. The most common symptoms of bone spurs are the following: 

  • Joint stiffness 
  • Weakness and numbness in the back, arms, or legs 
  • Bumps or knobby areas that you can feel in the fingers or toes 
  • Limited range of motion
  • Tendinitis 
  • Pain 
  • Swelling 
  • Muscle cramps 

You may notice only a couple of these symptoms at a time, and some may come and go. Symptoms may worsen with activity. If you notice symptoms that persist for more than a couple of days, be sure to see a doctor. Bone spurs are easiest to treat when they are diagnosed as early on as possible. 

Are there any risk factors or groups for bone spurs?

Back to top

Bone spurs do occur more commonly in some groups based on demographics and health history. The following factors may contribute to a higher risk but are not guarantees that you will develop bone spurs, only that you have a higher chance of the condition. 

Age: As you age, there are many slow changes that occur to your bones, ligaments, and tendons that make your body more vulnerable to a variety of injuries, including bone spurs. Joints become less stable over time as cartilage wears down, creating little flecks of bone from new rubbing of the bones. Bone spurs are most common in people older than 60.

Genetics and family history: You are more likely to develop a bone spur if one of your parents had painful bone spurs in the past, indicating a genetic link to the spurs. 

Diet and nutrition: A poor diet can result in a weaker, less nourished body and a higher chance of bone spurs. A bone-healthy diet can support strength and stability in the joints. 

Medical history: Those with the conditions of arthritis, osteoarthritis, or spinal stenosis may be at a higher risk of developing bone spurs due to the nature of the conditions affecting the joints. 

Lifestyle: If you regularly participate in difficult and active sports that require quick movements, you may be at a higher risk of bone spurs due to injury from the sports. 

How are bone spurs diagnosed?

Back to top

Bone spurs are best diagnosed by visiting your primary care physician who will review your medical history, assess any symptoms, and conduct tests to determine a diagnosis. The medical history review will aim to identify potential risk factors from medical conditions or family history that could indicate a higher likelihood of bone spurs. Then a physical examination will look for pinpointed areas of pain and joint mobility. 

In addition to an exam, your doctor will likely order one or more imaging tests to be able to see the bone and detect any bone spurs that might be present. Imaging tests include the following:

  • X-rays: X-rays will show the bony spurs or arthritis in the joints. 
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans: CT scans help assess potential damage to the ligaments or tendons. 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): For a clearer look at the surrounding area of the joint, an MRI can offer more detail about the state of the damaged tendons or ligaments. 

Some bone spurs are diagnosed during tests for other conditions if the bone spur did not produce any symptoms, so a bone spur diagnosis may come as a surprise. If the bone spur occurs in a location like the hand or foot, your doctor may be able to feel for abnormalities in the bone. 

How are bone spurs treated?

Back to top

The aim of treating bone spurs is to manage any pain the bone spur may be causing and to prevent future injury or complications resulting from the bone spur. Bone spurs do not typically create the need for invasive treatments or surgeries to remove the spurs unless other conditions are creating excessive pain or irreparable damage to the joints. Treatment can include medications, therapy, and home remedies. 

Medication: There are no prescription medications used to treat bone spurs. Instead, over-the-counter pain relievers are often recommended by doctors when bone spurs cause pain. Medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium are good examples of available pain relievers. 

Therapy: Physical therapy may be a good treatment option for someone who is looking to strengthen their body and help improve their joint mobility. Becoming more mobile keeps the joints functional, reduces pain, and increases flexibility overall. 

Steroid injections: Steroid shots can temporarily address issues like swelling and inflammation in the joints. You have to space out injections over a year and can likely get three shots in a year. 

Surgery: Surgery may be a good option for those who have bone spurs on top of other conditions like osteoarthritis. These individuals may consult with their doctor about the benefits of a bone spur removal surgery or a full joint replacement to lessen the pain. The surgery to remove bone spurs consists of your doctor making small incisions to remove the bone spur. 

Home treatments: Home treatments like icing your joints and resting can go a long way with managing any pain linked to the bone spurs. In addition, you can also try to incorporate more activity into your daily life to keep your mobility and lessen the stress on the joints. Look for low-impact activities, which are good for improving strength, balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.

Should you see a doctor for bone spurs?

Back to top

Since some bone spurs do not result in any symptoms, it may not be possible to see a doctor right when a bone spur forms if it is not creating any pain. However, when you start to notice persistent symptoms like stiffness, limited range of motion, numbness, or joint pain, be sure to see a doctor as soon as you can to receive a proper diagnosis. 

Bone spurs can be successfully treated with home remedies, medicine, and other therapies to manage pain and work to restore full mobility after you receive a diagnosis. 

Bone spurs are not usually cause for concern, but they can be indicative of further degeneration caused by arthritis and osteoarthritis, which your primary care physician will want to address. Be sure to attend follow up appointments with your healthcare team to monitor the bone spurs and stick to a treatment plan. 

What is the outlook for people living with bone spurs?

Back to top

Once a bone spur forms, the bony growth will remain unless your doctor recommends surgically removing the spur. Bone spurs can also appear throughout the body in more than one location even if one is removed with surgery. The outlook in living with bone spurs is generally positive as the bone spur typically does not cause any adverse health concerns. Pain management and therapy can help manage the symptoms of the bone spurs to allow you to have a normal life. 

Choosing low-impact activities can keep you active while ensuring you do not exacerbate symptoms or cause new injuries that may result in more bone spurs. Bone spurs can be prevented or delayed by prioritizing joint health in the following ways:

  • Maintain a moderate weight to reduce pressure on joints and help lessen arthritis symptoms.
  • Incorporate rest and icing into your daily routine.
  • Use supportive footwear for exercise and daily activities to prevent injury. 
  • Eat a balanced diet.