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On-Call Advice

What are bone spurs, and how are they treated?

Bone spurs are small segments or portions of extra bone that form along the edges of bones, often in and around the joints or where ligaments or tendons attach to bones. While they can occur in almost any part of the body, they most often form in the hands, feet, elbows, knees, spine, hips and shoulders.

Experts believe that bone spurs, also called osteophytes, occur with certain changes in the joints brought on by wear and tear. These changes are often associated with osteoarthritis, the inflammation that occurs after the breakdown of the smooth, gliding surfaces of chondral cartilage between bones within the joints. One theory about bone spur formation holds that the body tries to compensate for this increased friction by creating new bony structures along these surfaces, resulting in rough edges that can eventually limit motion in a joint or cause other problems.

Other conditions that can lead to bone spurs include the following:

  • Plantar fasciitis: chronic inflammation of the thick connective ligament on the sole of the foot that connects to the calcaneus (heel) and supports the foot’s arch
  • Spondylosis: a general term for various degenerative arthritic conditions of the spine
  • Spinal stenosis: narrowing of the spaces within the spine, which can irritate the spinal nerves

Treatment depends on where the bone spurs are located and the types of problems they may be causing. Many bone spurs produce no pain or other symptoms and are often found on X-ray images taken for another reason—in such cases, the spurs are typically not treated. If, however, a bone spur rubs against a nerve or another bony surface, it may cause pain and impaired functioning. Spurs associated with osteoarthritis in joints are often treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and by applying ice.

One complication of bone spurs can occur when the spur breaks off and becomes a “loose body,” which can then move around within the joint. In this situation, the result may be pain or reduced function, and the loose body may even cause the joint to “lock up.” Loose bodies that are causing problems can be removed surgically if other treatments are not effective. Bone spurs themselves typically are not removed surgically, as they will usually just grow back.

If you’re experiencing limited or diminished movement in a joint, talk to your doctor.

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