It is not uncommon for patients and/or physicians for that matter to use the terms bone spur and calcium deposit interchangeably. Unfortunately, these are two very different things that often occur in different parts of the body. For example you are more likely to see a bone spur in the foot and develop a calcium deposit in the shoulder or rotator cuff.
Bone spurs are bony extensions that form on bones, usually where tendons or ligaments attach. Bone spurs are usually smooth and found at the ends or edges of bones, particularly when two bones come together to form a joint. Common locations for bone spurs include the heels, knees, fingers, elbows, hips, shoulders, neck and lower back. Bone spurs usually occur in response to a particular stress at the site of the spur. The body will lay down bone if a tendon, ligament or tissue becomes tight and puts increased tension at the attachment site. This is why it is not uncommon to hear the term “traction spur”. A heel spur in the foot is an example of a traction spur. If a joint becomes loose or unstable such as the spine, the body will develop spurs in an attempt to create stability of the joint complex. Spurs are not necessarily the source of a person’s pain. The pain is often coming from the muscle, tendon, nerve or ligament around the spur. Some studies reveal that older people are more likely to display bone spurs, however spurs can occur in young athletically active people secondary to the athletic stress placed on the soft tissues attaching to the spur site. Bone spurs are commonly associated with the following conditions osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, spondylosis or plantar fasciitis.
In comparison to traction bone spurs, calcium deposits are small, dense areas of calcium that can form after a bone or tissue is stressed or damaged. When an injury or stress occurs, calcium travels through the bloodstream to the injured area to help repair damage. In some cases, the damaged area may receive more calcium than is needed. In other cases the microcirculation of the tissue is congested due to the injury. This will allow calcium to get into the tissue but the exiting circulation is restricted and therefore the excess calcium cannot get out. This leads to the deposit. In an additional scenario, the tendon may experience chronic tears over a period of time and the body will deposit calcium to fill the tear. Calcium deposits usually start as a thick paste that will eventually harden if they go untreated.
Calcium deposits are most common in women above 40 years of age, the same group at the highest risk for osteoporosis. Calcium deposits can occur when your body doesn’t receive enough dietary calcium. A calcium deficiency can cause your body to remove calcium from the bones and send it to other tissues, where it’s needed to assist with other bodily functions such as digestion, circulation, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, etc.
A sedentary lifestyle is another risk factor for calcium deposits. Regular exercise helps keep your bones strong and improves circulation, sending calcium to the places where it is needed the most, rather than being deposited in soft tissues.
If a bone spur or calcium deposit is located inside a joint or deep in a tissue, there won’t be any visible signs. Bone spurs that form close to the skin may look like small bumps or swellings under your skin. When a bone spur develops in your shoulder, you may find it difficult to move your arm normally because of pain or restricted range of motion. It is common to receive a diagnosis of “shoulder impingement”. This illustrates the importance of having the painful area evaluated with X-rays to either rule in or rule out the presence of bone spurs or calcium deposits. Bone spurs that form in the spine can result in compression of exiting spinal nerves, which may cause numbness or pain in your arms, legs or other areas of your body. If the spurs grow inward they can result in spinal stenosis or narrowing of the central spinal canal making it difficult to straighten up or limiting the distance someone can walk. If spurs develop in your knee, performing normal movements such as walking up and down stairs or getting in and out of the car can be painful. Heel spurs can make walking difficult every time your foot hits the ground. Spurs in the neck or cervical spine can compress arteries or veins, restricting the flow of blood to your brain or pressing on the trachea making it hard to swallow.
Having a simple X-ray can tell us if you have a bone spur or a calcium deposit. In the end, a calcium deposit can be resolved with a specific physical therapy treatment plan. Bone spurs are less likely to be resolved without surgical removal.