Introduction 

Osteophytes are bony lumps (bone spurs) that grow on the bones of the spine or around the joints.

They often form next to joints that have been affected by osteoarthritis (see What's the cause?).

Osteophytes can grow from any bone, but are most often found in the:

  • neck
  • shoulder
  • knee
  • lower back
  • fingers or big toe
  • foot or heel

What are the symptoms?

Osteophytes don't always cause symptoms.

They cause problems when they rub against other bone or tissue, when they restrict movement, or when they squeeze nearby nerves. For example:

  • in the spine they can cause pain and stiffness in the back
  • in the neck they can pinch a nearby nerve and cause pain, pins and needles, numbness or weakness in the arms
  • in the shoulder they can limit the space available for tendons and ligaments, and may be linked to tendonitis or a rotator cuff tear
  • in the hip and knee they can reduce the range of movement and are often associated with painful arthritis 
  • in the knee they may cause pain when you bend and extend your leg
  • in the fingers they can cause lumps

What's the cause?

Osteophytes tend to form when the joints have been affected by arthritis.

Osteoarthritis damages cartilage, the strong, smooth surface that lines the bones and allows the joints to move easily.

As the joints become increasingly damaged, new bone may be formed around the joints. 

Osteoarthritis mostly occurs in the knees, hips, spine and small joints of the hands and base of the big toe.

Osteophytes can also form in the spine as the result of ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis that specifically affects the spine).

What should I do?

If you have joint pain or stiffness, or you think you may have an osteophyte and symptoms are troubling you, see your GP. They will investigate what the underlying problem might be.  

Your GP will take a full medical history and physically examine you, testing your joint movements and muscle strength.

You may be referred for an X-ray, which would show up any arthritis in the joint and osteophytes. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is better for looking at torn ligaments or tendons.

Can it be treated?

Osteophytes don't usually cause pain, but the associated arthritis might.

If it is painful, you can try taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage this. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug, so may be more effective.

Read about how to get NHS help for your pain.

If you're overweight, it should help to lose weight, as this will relieve some of the strain on your joints.

It is probably worth seeing a physiotherapist, as they can advise on exercises to strengthen the muscles surrounding the problem area and help improve your range of movement.

Surgery may have a role in the management of any underlying arthritis in the joint. It can sometimes be helpful for osteoarthritis that affects your hips, knees or joints, particularly those at the base of your thumb.

Read about surgery for osteoarthritis.

Removal of an osteophyte alone is often not very helpful, unless it is causing irritation of a nerve in the spine or restricting the range of movement of a joint. Your surgeon should explain the risks and benefits of this procedure.

Page last reviewed: 03/07/2014

Next review due: 03/07/2016