Commonly referred to as a bone spur or a parrots beak, an osteophyte is a bony projection that forms along joint margins. Examples include heel spurs, which are calcium growths that can form when a foot bone is exposed to continuous stress, or Heberden’s nodes, which are bone projections that grow on the fingers and/or toes in conjunction with osteoarthritis. Most people think bone spurs are sharp or pointy, but in reality, they’re usually just smooth bits of extra bone.
Osteophytes are usually symptomless and painless, unless they begin to rub against other bone or nearby tissue like ligaments, tendons and nerves. Sometime calluses and corns develop, as the tissue tries to provide extra padding on the spur.
Osteophytes form as your body’s way of protecting itself from pressure, rubbing or other stress that affects the joints and bones over long periods of time. The most common cause of osteophytes is arthritis, which damages joints and leads to new bone growth. However, in the case of heel spurs, the cause is constant stress to the foot and heel, which results in the bony growth. Plantar fasciitis (when the plantar fascia tendon in the bottom of the foot becomes stressed and pulls on the heel) is often associated with heel spurs, as is wearing shoes that are too tight, which can cause what is sometimes called a “pump bump” (a bone spur on the back of the heel that is commonly found in women who frequently wear high heels).
Because osteophytes typically don’t cause any pain, they don’t usually need treatment. However, if they begin to irritate the surrounding bone or tissue, over-the-counter painkillers can help reduce the discomfort. Some doctors also suggest losing weight, as that can help relieve strain on the joints, and stretching, which can relieve the pain and loosen tight muscles and ligaments. In the case of heel spurs or other bone spurs that affect the feet, podiatrists may recommend shoe inserts, orthoses or a heel cup.
In rare cases, surgery may be required for osteophytes. However, surgical procedures have the tendency to exacerbate the original problem, so it’s usually only suggested if the osteophyte is causing irritation to a nerve or severely restricting the range of motion for a joint.