Bone Spurs

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Bone spurs are renegade growths of bone that don’t grow in normal places and in the usual manner. They don’t play by the rules, and most of the time they either go unnoticed, or cause a certain amount of discomfort. However, just when we think we have all the marvelous intricacies of the human body figured out, we realize we must take another look. Some bone spurs are actually a byproduct of the body’s attempt to strengthen and bring balance when age or disease have caused a part of the musculoskeletal system to break down.

What Are Bone Spurs?

Bone spurs, also known as osteophytes, are abnormal bony growths that tend to grow at the end of and along the edges of bones. Bone spurs can form anywhere, but they most commonly occur along weight-bearing joints such as the spinal area, knees, hips, and feet. One of most oft-occurring types of bone spurs are heel spurs. Spurs themselves are not painful, but they do not have a protective layer of cartilage as normal bone growth does, and often they will rub against other bones, nerves, muscles, or blood vessels and cause pain that can range from minimal to intense. Most bone spurs are the result of other diseases or conditions, most notably osteoarthritis, but they can also form independently of other conditions, and some bone spurs actually serve a useful purpose.

What Are the Symptoms of Bone Spurs?

A lot of this depends on where the bone spurs form, but in general they can cause pain and sometimes loss of motion when bearing weight on an affected area. Besides heel spurs, which we will go into more detail about below, here are some typical symptoms based on location of the spurs:

  • Knee: Spurs in the knee may make it difficult to both bend and fully extend your knee. Spurs can interfere with the many bones and tendons that are found in the knee. Kneeling, especially for extended periods of time, can be very troublesome for folks with bone spurs in the knee.
  • Spine: Bone spurs on or near the spine can cause a multitude of problems. There are critical nerve pathways located here, and depending upon where the spur forms, pain and tingling can be felt in the neck, back, legs, and other parts of the body. Spinal bone spurs can also result in headaches and dizziness for some folks, and can sometimes interfere with balance as well.
  • Neck: These are known as cervical bone spurs, and in some cases, if they grow inward, can interfere with swallowing and make it difficult or painful to breathe. Cervical spurs can also put pressure on major blood vessels that go to the brain, thus limiting the blood flow. This can result in the death of brain cells, and if left unchecked can lead to cognitive issues related to dementia.
  • Shoulder: Spurs here will often affect the rotator cuff, a tightly bundled group of tendons that regulate shoulder movements. Swelling of the rotator cuff (tendinitis) can occur, as well as tears in the cuff itself. This is often a problem for people who put a lot of strain on their shoulder joints, such a professional baseball pitcher, for example.
  • Fingers: Bone spurs in the finger joints make ones hands appear knobby and disfigured. They may also cause intermittent pain, especially during heavy use of the hands for gripping or lifting.

One common complication of bone spurs is called loose bodies. This is a condition that occurs when a spur or part of one breaks off from the main bone, and becomes free-floating within the joint. Sometimes loose bodies will become painfully embedded in the lining of the joint (synovium). They can also cause intermittent “lockages” in the joint that prevent it from moving properly.

What Causes Bone Spurs?

Bone spurs are a very common condition, but most of them never become a problem. Many people develop them as they age due to osteoarthritis, a condition that involves loss of cartilage in the joints. Osteoarthritis can begin to manifest itself in young people who are in their twenties and thirties, but it rarely exhibits any symptoms until later in life. By the time most of us reach our seventies, there is at least some degree of osteoarthritis at work. By this time pain may begin to occur because of bones rubbing on each other and surrounding tissues and structures due to lesser amounts of cartilage.

As I mentioned above, sometimes bone spurs are the result of the body seeking to bring stability to aging or arthritic joints. New bone growth can help redistribute the weight and protect areas of cartilage that are still healthy or just beginning to break down. This is just another example of how our bodies are created to naturally bring healing and restoration when disease or injuries occur.

Besides osteoarthritis, there are other conditions that can also be associated with the growth of bone spurs. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Spondylosis: This involves the breakdown of bones within the lower back (lumbar spondylosis) or neck (cervical spondylosis). Osteoarthritis and associated bone spurs cause bone deterioration in these regions.
  • Spinal stenosis: In this condition, the formation of bone spurs can deform the bones of the spine, and put pressure on the spinal chord. This can lead to pain and motor (movement) dysfunction.
  • Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH):This involves the growth of bone spurs on the ligaments that are found in the spine.

Bone Spurs of the Heel

Perhaps if we take a more in depth look at one of the most common types of bone spurs, heel spurs, it will help us better understand these bony growths and the effects they can have.

Heel spurs are typically very painful and problematic bone spurs that form on the sole (bottom) of the heel bone, an area of the body that experiences maximum weight bearing. Heel spurs are commonly the result of damage to a fibrous mass of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot, from the heel to the toes. This structure is called the plantar fascia. People who run and jump a lot, such as athletes and dancers, are particularly prone to damage their plantar fascia, and develop associated heel spurs.

Certain factors seem to often cause irritation and damage to the plantar fascia. These include:

  • Excessive pronation: Pronation is a natural phenomenon that occurs when walking. It involves inward and downward action of the foot that causes the arch of the foot to flatten with each step. When pronation becomes excessive, it leads to permanently flat arches (sometimes called “fallen arches” or “flat feet.”). When this occurs, the plantar fascia can actually begin to tear loose from the heel end of the bone, which encourages the growth of heel spurs.
  • Genu Valgus: The common name for this condition is “knock knees.” It affects folks who have a tendency to walk “pigeon-toed,” with legs and feet turned inward. “Knock knees” leads to excessive pronation, and in turn to fallen arches and heel spurs. People with excessively high arches are also more susceptible to bone spurs. This condition is more common in women than in men, perhaps due to the type of footwear they use, such as high heels.

Other factors that can encourage the growth of heel spurs include:

  • Obesity: Carrying around extra pounds only compounds the excessive wear and tear on the heel and plantar fascia.
  • Age: As we grow older, we often lose some of the cushioning effect in the heel area due to the drying and thinning out of the skin.
  • Poorly fitted shoes: If you put a lot of strain on your feet, quality footwear is vital to the health of your feet. Those in occupations that demand heavy use of the feet or long hours on your feet should never skimp on shoes. It pays in the long run to provide high quality footwear for yourself. It may cost you a few more dollars, but it can prevent lifelong problems such as heel spurs and fallen arches, especially when you get older.
  • Sudden changes in activity: If you are training for a new sport or starting a new job that requires excessive wear on your feet, break in your shoes, especially if they are new, before you quickly increase your activity. This type of behavior can easily cause issues that can lead to heel spurs and other painful foot problems.

What Treatments Are Available for Bone Spurs?

Occasionally surgery is suggested, but the truth of the matter is that once a bone spur has grown in a certain area, it is very likely to return after surgery. Some better options include:

  • Chiropractic care and physical therapy: These can be especially helpful to sufferers of spinal bone spurs in the vertebrae. Manipulation and the use of specific exercises will often enable folks to regain some or all movement and flexibility.
  • Hydrotherapy: Low impact exercises such as “water running” can be very beneficial at helping some patients deal with bone spurs. These types of workouts are also great alternatives for joggers who are not able to take the heavy impact on their bodies from such activities any more.
  • Bicycling: This is also a great low impact form of aerobics that can temporarily or permanently replace more strenuous forms of exercise. This is especially excellent for the knee joints. It can loosen them up and keep things running smoothly in these complex joints.
  • Stretching: One of the best things you can do is to take a tip from your dog and stretch regularly and thoroughly, especially first thing in the morning, or after sitting for extended periods of time. Gentle stretching of the muscles of the calves and feet can be particularly effective at reducing your risk for damage to the plantar fascia and resulting heel spurs.

The use of common sense and an active, balanced lifestyle can go a long ways towards preventing bone spurs. Exercise is essential, but learning not to overdo it is just as important. Our bodies can take a lot of wear and tear without showing ill effects. If we take care of them, they usually take care of us well in return.

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