What Is Spinal Stenosis?
The spine is a column of bones called “vertebrae” that provide
stability and support for the upper body. It enables us to turn and twist.
Spinal nerves run through openings in the vertebrae and conduct signals from
the brain to rest of the body. The surrounding bone and tissues protect these
nerves. If they’re damaged or impaired in any way, it can affect functions like
walking, balance, and sensation.
Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal column narrows
and starts compressing the spinal cord. This process is typically gradual. If
the narrowing is minimal, no symptoms will occur. Too much narrowing can
compress the nerves and cause problems.
Stenosis can occur anywhere along the spine. How much of the
spine is affected can vary.
Spinal stenosis is also called:
- central spinal stenosis
- foraminal spinal stenosis
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
Symptoms typically progress over time, as nerves become more
compressed. You might experience:
- leg or arm weakness
- lower back pain while standing or walking
- numbness in your legs or buttocks
- balance problems
Sitting in a chair usually helps relieve these symptoms. However,
they’ll return with periods of standing or walking.
What Are the Causes of Spinal Stenosis?
The most common cause of spinal stenosis is aging. Degenerative
processes occur throughout the body as it ages. Tissues in the spine may start
to thicken, and bones may get bigger, compressing the nerves. Conditions like osteoarthritis
and rheumatoid arthritis may also contribute to spinal stenosis. The
inflammation they cause can put pressure on the cord.
Other conditions that can cause stenosis include:
- spine defects present at birth
- a naturally narrow spinal cord
- spinal curvature, or scoliosis
- Paget’s disease of the bone, which causes
abnormal bone destruction and regrowth
- bone tumors
- achondroplasia, which is a type of dwarfism
How Is Spinal Stenosis Diagnosed?
If you have the symptoms of spinal stenosis, your doctor will
start by taking a medical history, performing a physical exam, and observing
your movements. Tests can be used to confirm a suspected diagnosis. They may
- spinal imaging, using X-ray, MRI, or CT scan
- electromyelogram to check the health of spinal
- bone scan to look for damage or growths in the
Treatment Options for Spinal Stenosis
Pharmaceutical treatment is typically tried first. The goal is to
relieve your pain. Cortisone injections into the spinal column can reduce
swelling. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also help with
Physical therapy may also be an option. It can strengthen muscles
and gently stretch your body.
Surgery may be needed for severe pain. It can relieve pressure
permanently. Several types of surgery are used to treat spinal stenosis.
is the most common type of
surgery. Part of the vertebrae is removed to provide more room for the nerves.
- Foraminotomy is
a surgery that’s done to widen the part of the vertebrae where the
fusion is typically performed in more severe cases. Bone grafts or metal
implants are used to attach the affected bones of the spine together.
Coping with Spinal Stenosis
Options other than surgery may be able to ease the pain of spinal
stenosis. These include:
- heat packs or ice
Back pain can have a serious impact on your quality of life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may be able to help you manage your pain by
providing education and coping mechanisms.
Long-Term Outlook for People with Spinal
Many people with spinal stenosis lead full lives and remain
active. However, they may need to make modifications to their physical
activity. Many people have residual pain after treatment or surgery.