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Bone Spurs: What to Know About This Confusing and Tricky Condition

If you’ve ever had an X-ray, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a bone spur. They are bony growths or extra bone that develop at the spot where ligaments and tendons attach to a bone and pull. “Everyone has bone spurs,” said Christopher Toth, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon with Banner Health in Phoenix. “If you take an X-ray of an Olympic athlete, they’re going to have bone spurs all over the place because their muscles are pulling so hard.”

So, having bone spurs is not necessarily a cause for concern. They get tricky when you’re feeling pain — then you need to determine if it’s the bone spurs that are causing the pain and stiffness. “Just because you have bone spurs doesn’t mean there’s an issue. They may not bother you at all,” Dr. Toth said. “In fact, if I take an X-ray and see a bone spur but the person didn’t describe pain there, I might not even mention it because it’s not contributing to the problem.”

What causes bone spurs?

There are several common causes of and risk factors for bone spurs:

  • The way you move and create tension where your tendon meets the bone. This is the most common cause.
  • Genetics—you can be born in a way that makes you prone to bone spurs. 
  • Trauma, particularly in children—an injury to a growth plate can misalign the plate, which causes a bone spur when it fuses. 
  • Certain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or Charcot osteoarthropathy. 
  • An underlying condition such as cancer in the bone, though most bone spurs are not cancerous. 

You can develop bone spurs in many parts of the body, including the knees, feet, big toe, hips, spine, shoulders and hands. You’ll commonly find them on the bottom of the foot and where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel, called heel spurs.

Dr. Toth said that people often think bone spurs grow out, creating a noticeable lump under the skin. But that’s not necessarily the case: “Often, bone spurs face in towards the body, so there’s no way to notice them under the skin.”

How can you prevent bone spurs?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to prevent bone spurs. And once they develop, you can’t make them go away or keep them from getting bigger.

What symptoms can bone spurs cause?

Along with pain, bone spurs can limit the range of motion in a joint. You may notice a grinding sensation. Bone spurs can cause pain if they rub against nerves or other tissues. They can cause symptoms that feel like carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica or nerve impingement. Bone spurs you can feel under your skin can cause irritation, especially on the feet, since they can rub against your shoes. 

How can bone spurs be treated?

“Not all bone spurs need to be removed,” Dr. Toth said. “That’s a misconception.”

Treatment can vary depending on what causes bone spurs and where on your body the bone spur develops. Treatment may include activity modification, orthotics, bracing or physical therapy. If you have bone spurs that irritate your feet, you can try wearing different types of shoes or adding padding to your shoes. Sometimes, cortisone injections can relieve pain. 

If those options don’t work, you may want to consider surgery to lengthen the tendon that’s attached to the spur. That way, it doesn’t pull on the spur as hard, so it doesn’t cause pain. If your bone spur is pressing on a nerve, decompressing the nerve surgically could alleviate the pain.

And sometimes removing the bone spur is the right procedure, according to Dr. Toth. In those cases, your doctor may send your bone spur out for evaluation to make sure there’s no underlying condition causing the spur. 

The bottom line

Bone spurs are common, and they don’t always need to be treated. But if your bone spurs are triggering pain, there are a range of treatment options to consider. To connect with a health care professional who can help evaluate and treat your bone spurs, reach out to Banner Health.

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