What do a dancer, a tennis player, a woman who wears high heels and a 60-year-old healthy person have in common? All are at increased risk for bone spurs.
Medically called osteophytes, these are bony growths that form along the edges of bone in various parts of the body—the spine (especially the neck and low back), shoulders, hips, knees, heels, hands and toes. Typically they occur in joints where bones meet, but can also be found where tendons, ligaments or muscles attach to bone.
Bone spurs develop as a result of damage or irritation to bone. Depositing new bone is the body’s attempt to repair the loss. This may occur due to degenerative changes in bone that accompany “normal” aging, especially in the spine, but is accelerated in people with arthritis, plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, bone infections, prior injury or biomechanical problems.
People with occupations that involve repetitive motion are more likely to develop bone spurs, as are people who are overweight or wear tight-fitting shoes. Joggers and dancers, for example, can form bone spurs in their feet from the recurring stress of the activities.
Bone spurs themselves do not cause pain—and in most cases people don’t even know they have one. But they can become a problem if they grow large enough to press on nerves or surrounding tissue. Bone spurs in the spine, for instance, can lead to pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the arms and legs. Those in the shoulder joint can pinch the tendons of the rotator cuff, causing pain, stiffness and weakness, all of which can lead to reduced range of motion. Bone spurs in the fingers can be felt as a hard lump under the skin and cause disfiguration.
What to do
If you have joint pain, swelling and stiffness, see your doctor. Such symptoms can be caused by many musculoskeletal conditions, not just bone spurs. Your doctor may order X-rays or another imaging test to help diagnose the problem. Keep in mind, though, bone spurs are often found on such tests, but are usually not the cause of the symptoms. Treatment for bone spurs is often similar to that for other musculoskeletal problems. Over-the-counter pain relievers may help.
Some doctors recommend corticosteroid injections. If you have limited mobility in the affected joint or body part, a physical therapist can guide you through exercises and stretches and do ultrasound, massage and other treatments (these can’t hurt, may help). Shoe inserts or orthotics may help relieve pain from heel spurs.
Weight loss, if you are overweight, is always a good idea. Of course, any underlying condition, such as arthritis or plantar fasciitis, should be addressed, too.
Depending on the location of the bone spur and how much of a problem it is, surgery may be an option. For example, bone spurs on the heel or shoulder can be surgically removed. But the goal of treatment is to relieve pain and prevent additional damage in the least invasive way.