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What Is a Disc Osteophyte Complex?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A disc osteophyte complex is a spinal abnormality that is most often caused by the normal aging process, though it may arise in a younger patient due to an autoimmune disorder or a major traumatic injury. When soft disc tissue in between vertebrae begins to break down, the area can calcify, harden, and put pressure on bones. The condition most often affects cervical vertebrae in the neck and can lead to frequent headaches, neck stiffness, and weakness in the shoulders. Treatment decisions are based on the severity of a patient's symptoms but may include medications, physical therapy, surgery, or all three.

People over the age of 55 are at the highest risk of developing this complex. As the body ages, cartilage tissue inside spinal joints naturally begins to degenerate. Disc degeneration can result in the development of bone spurs, or hard bony protrusions, in between vertebrae that rub against each other and cause further damage in the spine. Being obese and having a family history of osteoarthritis tend to increase the risk of spine problems later in life. Other conditions that may precede this condition include rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders such as hemophilia, and severe head and neck injuries.

A disc osteophyte complex may not cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages of development. As bone spurs begin to grow and rub on vertebrae, a person's neck might feel stiff and sore. Pain can radiate from the neck to the shoulders and arms, causing weakness and fatigue. Headaches that seem to be centered in the back of the head are common. If the complex becomes large enough to press against the spinal cord or peripheral nerves, it can cause debilitating pain or even paralysis in the upper limbs.

It is important to receive a clinical evaluation whenever neck pain becomes a persistent nuisance. A doctor can check for signs of the condition by asking about symptoms and taking x-rays of the spine. In most cases, protruding bone spurs can be recognized on diagnostic imaging tests. After confirming the diagnosis, the doctor can explain different treatment options.

Degenerative disorders that are found early can often be treated with medications. Oral anti-inflammatory drugs help to ease soreness and increase flexibility in the neck. Massage, ice, and rest are often useful in relieving symptoms as well. If a disc is severely damaged, the patient may need to receive a corticosteroid injection directly into the neck to treat inflammation. Surgery to shear bone spurs, fuse vertebrae, and decompress the spine is a final option in the case of late-stage disc osteophyte complex.

Is Disc Osteophyte Complex Serious?

Some people compare disc osteophyte complex to arthritis. It has a similar impact on your joints by limiting movement and causing pain. However, disc osteophyte complex isn’t only related to joint pain and movement hindrance.

Disc osteophyte complex can often be a sign of a more serious problem. Bone spurs are uncomfortable on their own but can lead to nerve pain and damage. Nerve damage can impact other body systems as well.

Symptoms of disc osteophyte complex present as stiffness and back or neck pain. If you feel pain in your lower back, it could also spread lower to your thighs. Neck pain can spread to your shoulders and arms, further restricting movement.

If your disc osteophyte complex gets more severe, it can cause numbness or a tingle in your extremities. You might feel a rush of pain when you sit down, bend over, or twist your body. When you try to push, pull, or lift things, you can experience pain radiating from your spine into your arms, legs, hands, and feet.

Does Disc Osteophyte Complex Require Surgery?

You don’t have to have surgery to treat disc osteophyte complex pain, but it can help. There are different approaches to the process depending on the severity of your condition.


A laminectomy removes most of the lamina, which is part of the vertebral arch. It’s the back part of the spine that keeps the spinal cord and nerves protected. The surgeon will extract the lamina to alleviate pressure on your spinal cord or nerves.

Though it might sound like a major surgery, a laminectomy is minimally invasive. You might need to stay in the hospital for a short time, but the relief you’ll feel is worth it. A laminectomy can ease pain and prevent detrimental neurological conditions that result from spinal cord damage.


A laminotomy is a way to eliminate pressure in your spine. The surgery aims to decompress your spinal column by removing a small portion of the lamina to reach the herniated disc. It differs from a laminectomy, which removes most or all of the lamina as the treatment. Your surgeon usually performs a laminotomy to access the affected discs.

Disc Replacement

Replacing a disc with bone spurs attached can alleviate your back and neck pain. Your surgeon will remove the affected disc and insert an artificial disc. You’ll still have a range of motion, but the artificial disc can’t grow bone spurs.

Lumbar Fusion

If you’re a candidate for lumbar fusion, your surgeon will remove the damaged disc from the lumbar portion of your spine. The surgeon fuses together the two surrounding vertebrae to provide enough spinal support. 

How Can You Treat Disc Osteophyte Complex in the Spine?

Since disc osteophytes don’t go away on their own, you’ll always need some sort of treatment to manage the pain. It’s also best to get regular checkups so your doctor can monitor your general health. In some cases, bone spurs can be a sign of a more severe issue. People with disc osteophyte complex have gone on to develop degenerated and herniated discs.

If you don’t want to try surgery to alleviate the pain, you can use radiofrequency ablation (RFA). Commonly used to shrink benign tumors, RFA can also numb the affected nerve so you won’t feel the sensation of pain.

You can also take treatment into your own control by modifying your activities. You can limit activities that require a lot of motion, twisting, lifting, and pulling. If you must complete such work, take frequent breaks and try to have a day of rest between each session.

Physical therapy can help you practice mobility and stretching. Constantly strengthening muscles around your affected neck and back bone spurs can alleviate the pain. Since you’ll be working with neck muscles, you should carefully follow specific exercises given to you by a physical therapist to prevent further damage.

You can ease pain by using a heating pad or an ice pack. This solution is temporary but can make you feel better after a long day or a hard workout. If you want a similar treatment that’s longer-lasting, you can try medical injections. Steroid shots can reduce joint inflammation and alleviate your pain.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1001807 — On Jun 29, 2019

I have severe degenerative disc disease at L3-L4 level with right lateral disc osteophyte complex measuring up to 4mm AP resulting in severe right neural foraminal stenosis and compression of the right L3 nerve root.

I'm a service connected Vet and a single father who lives in an upstairs apartment. The V.A. wants me to drive over a hundred miles round trip to physical therapy twice a week. Don't you know I have laundry for months piling up. Life is funny sometimes.

By anon1001112 — On Mar 10, 2019

This is so funny, but not funny. I had 7views of the Lumbosacral spine about five years ago. Impression was read by one Radiologist SP-LS Spine 4V+CRt. Procedure. It says I have Moderate lumbar spondylosis. Then on the same day Another 4 views were done SP-Cervical SP4 to5V CR. Four years later, now I have Degenerative Spondylosis and my findings are worse since then. I asked the doctor what is my next step to be able to deal with pain I am experiencing through my neck, shoulder, and down my arm. I sometimes can't get up from a chair or bend down.

She sent me to pain management because she thought I was looking for drugs. What? I have never taken anything in my life for pain except for Aleve, and it's just not working anymore. I work every day and want to continue. Just recommend me something to deal with the pain, please.

By anon993310 — On Nov 03, 2015

I have been suffering with neck pain for over six months, telling my doctor and he told me to take Aleve. I finally had to make another appointment but this time got a PA, and she was awesome. She gave me a better exam than my doctor did, ordered all these tests and then found I have bone spurs in my neck from t1 to c4-c7, with numbness down my right arm, and severe burning across my right shoulder and jaw pain and sometimes eye pain as well. I'm going to see a orthopedic spine doctor. Hopefully, he will help me manage my pain. I am sick of taking medication. I just want a shot in my neck so I can continue to work.

By anon993308 — On Nov 02, 2015

For over 15 years I have been going to my doctor complaining about back pain. Must have some pulled muscles he would say. Now that I cant stand the pain anymore I took matters into my own hands and paid for MRI and CT scan out of my own pocket to find out my back is a mess. 5 bulging discs nerve root compression degenerative discs bone spurs. If he would just had listened to me and ordered some test maybe I wouldn't be in this shape. Don't trust the Doc. It's not his back that hurts.

By anon992572 — On Sep 17, 2015

As per MRI Report, C4-C5 shows osteophytic disc complex with a mild disc bulge causing anterior thecal sac indentation without causing neural foraminal narrowing or nerve root impingement.

By anon956621 — On Jun 15, 2014

I have had a burning pain in my left buttock. I have been told I have -- and am being treated for -- sciatica. I had a laminectomy at L3-5 four years ago, and now the burning pain is bilateral. I don't understand.

By anon946525 — On Apr 20, 2014

I went to the doctor and they said for the severity of my problems I need surgery, but since I have eds it would be worse due to hyper mobility. So I received no treatment at all!

By Mor — On Nov 30, 2013

@Ana1234 - Research is one of the best weapons against that sort of thing. If you've got a lot of information about the cervical disc osteophyte complex and you know what they need to do to check for it, they are going to be more likely to do what you ask. That's especially true if you can list off the symptoms for it and explain that you have those as well.

If you go into the doctor and just say you've got some pain, then you'll end up being given some painkillers and shown the door.

By Ana1234 — On Nov 29, 2013

@Iluviaporos - I think the problem is that often the doctor isn't going to take you seriously. An older person going in and complaining about back or neck pain might just be told to take a bit of pain medication and sent away again. This is particularly true if the person in pain is overweight.

In fact I've heard of a woman who needed spinal disc surgery and was told that she was exaggerating her pain and that it all stemmed from the fact that she was fat. After days of agony they finally x-rayed her spine and then rushed her into emergency surgery when they realized there actually was something wrong.

Which is not to say that you shouldn't go to the doctor if you are in pain. Just be prepared to fight for your right to treatment.

By lluviaporos — On Nov 28, 2013

You really have to be vigilant against these kinds of things as you get older. If you have any kind of persistent ache, you should take yourself to the doctor. Often the sooner you get it treated the more likely it is to be fixed.

And disc pain really is the worst. My father put up with it for years and it just wore him down. It makes me sad to think that he might have been able to get proper help for it, but he just hated going to the doctor.

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