Bone Spicules: Definition, Causes, & Treatment in 2024

Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult a physician regarding any specific medical concerns or treatment needs.

Bone spicules are small, thin pieces of bone that can form inside joints or the spaces surrounding them. If you’ve ever had an X-ray or MRI scan, the radiologist may have pointed out these small bone fragments which can sometimes look alarming if you don’t understand what they are. While bone spicules sound unusual, they are relatively common and this guide covers everything you need to know.

What Are Bone Spicules?

Bone spicules are thin, spike-like bone fragments, usually only a few millimeters long. You may hear them referred to as bone spurs or osteophytes too. These small pieces of extra bone can form:

  • On the surface of joints
  • In tendons or ligaments surrounding joints
  • In small cavities within joints

They often develop slowly over time as part of the normal aging process or due to repetitive strain and inflammation. In most cases, bone spicules don’t cause any symptoms or problems at all. But if they grow large enough they may begin pressing against soft tissues like nerves, tendons, or ligaments and cause discomfort.

Read More: Stress Reduction Strategies in the Workplace

What Causes Bone Spicules to Form?

There are a few different factors that can stimulate the new bone to start forming into these small spicules:


The natural aging process causes changes throughout the musculoskeletal system. As you get older, existing bone tends to get thicker and stronger while new pieces may start to grow in places they shouldn’t. This can include tiny spicules.


Inflammation is a key driver of new bone formation. Arthritis causes damage to joint tissues, triggering swelling and inflammation. The body responds by trying to stabilize joints which can include forming new supportive bone.

Injuries and Tears

Acute injuries or repetitive small traumas, like micro-tears in tendons or ligaments, also set off local inflammation. As part of the healing response, your body lays down scar tissue and may deposit new bone spicules. This helps stabilize areas weakened by damage.

Mechanical Stress

Repeated mechanical stress also prompts new bone growth. Certain types of repetitive movements or consistent pressure can stimulate bone spicule formation over time. They act like small structural supports.

So in most cases, bone spicules are formed by the body in response to aging, inflammation, or instability. They start microscopically small but some may gradually enlarge over months or years.

Where Do Bone Spicules Form in the Body?

Bone spicules can crop up in or around many different joints, including areas like:

  • Spine – Within the small facet joints or between vertebrae
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Shoulders
  • Elbows
  • Wrists
  • Fingers
  • The base of the skull
  • Jaw

They typically form in sites that undergo a lot of repetitive movements and stress over time. Areas like the lower back and knees are most vulnerable due to the constant load they carry.

Bone spicules can also grow in the spaces around joints, tendons, and ligaments. For example in the:

  • Canals surrounding the spinal cord
  • Tunnels certain tendons pass through
  • Areas where tendons or ligaments attach to bone (entheses)

When bone fragments develop in confined spaces like these, they have an increased chance of irritating surrounding tissues.

Symptoms of Bone Spicules

In most cases, small bone spicules are completely asymptomatic and found incidentally on imaging scans for other reasons. But some may grow large enough over years to cause localized symptoms like:

Ache or Pain – If sensory nerves pass nearby, the spicule can irritate them causing mild to moderate localized pain.

Stiffness – Restricted mobility and stiffness may occur if bone spurs limit joint movement or impinge on tendons.

Numbness & Tingling – Pressure on certain nerves can produce pins-and-needles sensations or numb patches.

Swelling – Inflamed soft tissues surrounding bony spurs may appear visibly swollen and puffy.

Reduced Strength – Nearby muscle weakness can develop if bone fragments compress nerves or rub directly against muscle bellies.

Symptoms are most likely if the bone spicule grows in a confined space like a canal or tunnel area. This leaves less room for nearby nerves and tendons to glide smoothly.

How Are Bone Spicules Diagnosed?

Bone spurs are often first discovered on imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs that were ordered to evaluate joint pain or investigate other symptoms. We rely primarily on imaging rather than physical examination to detect tiny bone fragments.

Sometimes no visible bone spur is seen, but signs of inflammation around a particular area of soft tissue may hint at an underlying micro-spicule irritating it. Comparison views of the opposite or contralateral “normal” joint can help determine if any bony changes seem asymmetric or pronounced.

Doctors also assess different patterns of symptoms to judge if a bone spur could be a reasonable cause. Nerve irritation from a spur classically worsens at night. Since we lie flat for hours sleeping, any bone fragments have prolonged contact with nerve tissues which tends to amplify symptoms.

Identifying bone spurs that happen to rub against nerves or restrict joint movement helps guide appropriate treatment approaches.

Bone Spicules vs Osteophytes

You may also hear bone spurs referred to as osteophytes. Technically speaking, there are some subtle differences:

Osteophytes are bony outgrowths that emerge directly from the surface of a normal bone. They create a small protruding ledge or “bone spur” sticking out.

Bone spicules are often loose tiny bone chips that form in soft tissues surrounding joints like tendons or ligaments rather than fused directly to bone.

However, in everyday usage, most doctors use the terms bone spur and osteophyte interchangeably. They both refer to the same phenomenon of small new bone growths in or around joints.

Are Bone Spicules Serious?

The vast majority of bone spurs produce no signs or symptoms at all and remain silent for life. Many people have small osteophytes that do absolutely no harm. They are considered benign, non-critical findings.

In rare cases, though, bone spurs that go unnoticed and untreated for years can gradually enlarge. This slow growth allows time for surrounding nerves, muscles, or ligaments to adjust to some degree. But spicules greater the 3-5 mm may increase compression of local tissues and provoke worsening inflammation and discomfort.

While troublesome bone spurs are seldom dangerous on their own, the resulting stiffness and limping can raise risks of falls or overuse injuries in adjacent joints. Maintaining mobility through proactive conditioning is important.

People already coping with arthritis or degenerative disc disease often have far less tolerance for small amounts of extra bone formation. What appears a minor or moderate bone spur on imaging may generate intense inflammation and symptoms in some individuals.

Bone Spicule Treatment Options

If bone spurs produce no signs or symptoms, no treatment is necessary other than monitoring for changes during routine exams. Therapy aims to relieve discomfort and inflammation when spurs cause localized pain or nerve irritation.

Watchful Waiting

As we age, it’s common to develop minor joint abnormalities like small bone spurs that are non-symptomatic. Rather than rushing to treat findings on imaging, it’s reasonable to monitor areas of mild changes closely for a while. If they remain dormant and painless over time, no treatment may be advisable.


Anti-inflammatory medication helps dampen irritation, swelling, and pain caused by bone spurs rubbing on soft tissues. Over-the-counter options like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can ease mild to moderate inflammation. Stronger prescription NSAID pills or shots may be warranted for more severe cases combined with arthritis.

Steroid Injections

Injecting fast-acting corticosteroid medication around active bone spurs can rapidly cool local inflammation. Steroid shots often reduce pain substantially for several months, but effects wear off over time. They may be repeated if symptoms flare back up.

Physical Therapy

Stretching tight muscles and strengthening core joint stabilizers through physical therapy help take pressure off bone spurs and ease associated discomfort. Custom exercises enhance stability, restore range of motion, and prevent stiffness in the legs, shoulders, and back.

Orthotics or Bracing

Rigid braces, custom shoe inserts, or walking boots help immobilize and decompress sore joints. This allows inflamed soft tissues and nerves time to heal without continuous irritation from bone fragments rubbing on them. Temporary rest restores comfort.

Alternative Therapies

Gentle hands-on treatments like chiropractic adjusting, osteopathic manipulation, massage, or acupuncture may alleviate referred pain stemming from bone spurs. Alternative modalities help muscles relax which decreases compression on irritated nerves.


If bone spurs remain highly symptomatic despite exhaustive conservative treatment, surgical removal may be an option. This is seldom pursued except for the most problematic spurs causing nerve dysfunction or greatly limiting mobility. Surgery aims to shave down or remove irritating bone outgrowths while preserving stability and alignment.

While imaging may identify bone spicules in many people, few produce troublesome effects. Mild cases often stabilize and improve through natural healing mechanisms. Close monitoring and conservative care offer safe, non-surgical ways to manage discomfort in a majority of patients.


Can bone spicules dissolve or disappear?

Existing bone spicules don’t dissolve or disappear on their own. Sometimes tiny bone fragments break off or fall away into the joint space. What remains of the spur itself generally persists unless surgically removed.

Do bone spicules float in joints?

Yes, it’s fairly common to have loose bone chips floating in joint cavities, especially the knees, shoulders, and hips. These mobile fragments are called joint mice and come from small spurs that broke off from stationary surfaces.

Can I prevent bone spicules from forming?

There’s no absolute prevention since spur formation is age-related or stems from arthritis and injuries. However, protecting joints from overuse and repetitive strain may reduce excessive inflammation and formation of micro-spurs over decades.

If bone spurs don’t show on X-ray are they still real?

Yes, not all bone spurs are dense or large enough to appear clearly on plain diagnostic X-rays. Smaller spurs are often visible using more detailed CT or MRI scans. The lack of X-ray findings doesn’t rule them out as a source of pain.

Do I need surgery to remove bone spicules?

Surgery is rarely necessary except for severe, stubborn cases causing marked nerve compression or greatly limiting movement. Most bone spurs are managed successfully for many years using conservative treatments without operations.


Bone spicules are relatively widespread, especially in aging, active adults. While they appear somewhat alarming on scans, the vast majority create no problems at all. These incidental findings are seldom serious or dangerous on their own.

Yet for some individuals, direct contact from bone growths does inflame adjacent tissues like nerves and ligaments, producing localized discomfort. Thankfully several nonsurgical measures can ease irritation and swelling effectively. Careful monitoring and protection from overuse prevent minor spurs from becoming more symptomatic.

Remember that imaging reveals more abnormalities as we get older, but most stabilize or remain silent. Don’t rush to treat every bone spur seen on tests without correlating clinical symptoms. Through proactive conditioning to stay mobile and modifying activities that aggravate pain, most people manage bone spicules successfully without drastic measures.

Leave a Comment