Written by Michael J. Musacchio, Jr., M.D.
Fans of the television show “Dancing with the Stars” are well aware that former Olympic ice skating gold medalist, Dorothy Hamill, has withdrawn from the competition due to a spine injury described as a synovial cyst. While synovial cysts are actually quite common in the spine, they are probably less known than the more common disc bulges or bone spurs. Like disc bulges and bone spurs, synovial cysts can cause back and leg pain that can be quite severe.
Synovial cysts are benign cysts that develop as the lining of the joints in the spine (aka the synovium) degenerates over time due to wear and tear. They can be quite small and not cause any clinical symptoms, but they may also grow larger and cause nerve pain or back pain. Classically, they develop in an arthritic joint that has developed instability and the abnormal motion of the joint causes it to form these degenerative cysts. Much like a herniated disc, they can cause pain or even nerve damage and it is important to diagnose them and properly treat them.
The treatment of synovial cysts depends on how big of a problem they are causing for the patient. In patients who have minor aches and pains without significant neurologic pain, typically diet and exercise with avoidance of high impact activity such as running or lifting heavy weights (or in Dorothy Hamill’s case, Competitive Dancing!) is enough. When symptoms become more severe, physical therapy and steroid injections may play a role. Ultimately, when symptoms are severe and have failed to respond to conservative treatment, minimally-invasive surgical options are available to remove the cyst and relieve the pain and disability.
We diagnose synovial cysts on a daily base at Center for Spine Care, sometimes they are found incidentally on MRI’s for some other reason and other times as the primary source of the patient’s pain. As always, if you are having persistent or severe back pain an evaluation by a spine specialist can help ensure proper treatment and avoidance of neurologic injury.
It is important to note that we at Center for Spine Care are not involved in any way with Dorothy Hamill’s care.Michael J. Musacchio, Jr., M.D. is a Center for Spine Care minimally invasive neurosurgeon specializing in the spine.
To learn more about Center for Spine Care, visit our website!