5 Clear Signs Your Mystery Back Pain Is Actually Arthritis

Updated: Feb. 25, 2021

A backache that won’t quit may not just be from shoveling, lifting too-heavy weights, or wearing too-high heels. These telltale signs suggest it could be osteoarthritis, or arthritis of the spine

older woman with back pain
istock/Cathy Yeulet

You wake up to pain

If your back hurts when you first get out of the bed in the morning, the pain may caused by the inflammation characteristic of arthritis. (By the way, here’s what to do if you wake up with back pain.) When there’s inflammation, it could be due to arthritic changes or a nerve. Pain can also be caused by a herniated disc, as it pushes out and hits the nerves in your spinal cord. Herniated discs are common with degenerative disc disease, which often accompanies osteoarthritis, or arthritis of the spine. “With arthritis, the pain tends to get better during the day, but then in the evening it feels a little worse,” says Prakash Jayabalan, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at  Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

woman massaging calf
istock/Cathy Yeulet

Other body parts hurt, too

When arthritis of the spine advances, wear and tear on the vertebrae can cause a pinching or compressing of the spinal cord and nerves. Since the nerves running down your back connect to different areas of your body, you could end up feeling pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in your hips, butt, legs, and feet. “Those nerves go down the muscles of your legs, so that can cause weakness,” Dr. Jayabalan adds. (Learn what else can cause lower back and hip pain.)

doctor checking woman's spine

Your spine feels extra stiff

“Even if you’re not in pain, you may feel stiff in the morning,” Dr. Jayabalan says. In most cases, this stiffness will wear off as you start walking around, but the pain may return at night as the joints are stressed from the day. Bending over and arching your back may be particularly painful, and the pain can migrate—one day affecting a shoulder and the next day affecting your neck, and so on, he says. Here’s what else could be behind a stiff neck.

man talking to doctor

The pain keeps getting worse

Everyone experiences pain differently, and there’s no right or wrong time to see a doctor. “Some patients come in because of a very new pain,” Dr. Jayabalan says, “and others come after months or even years of suffering a twinge here and a twinge there.” (Learn what you should and shouldn’t do before a doctor appointment.) See a doctor if the pain comes and goes for more than four to six weeks, says Mark Mikhael, MD,  an orthopedic surgeon of the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute in Glenview, IL. (Find out how to manage chronic pain without medication.) Most pulled muscles and other minor injuries heal during that period of time, so if the pain persists and or gets worse, schedule an appointment. These everyday movements may be wrecking your joints.

woman unable to sleep

The pain disrupts your z’s

Back pain that keeps you up at night is a vicious cycle: Pain can worsen if you don’t get enough sleep, but if your pain is already keeping you up at night, there’s no way for it to subside. “If the pain is so significant that it’s impacting your sleep and quality of life,  it’s time to see a physician,” Dr. Jayabalan says. Still tossing and turning? Try these 13 insomnia tips from a sleep doctor to finally catch some Z’s.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest