What Is Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis causes narrowing of the spinal canal, usually due to age-related spine degeneration or traumatic spine injury. Because the canal houses nerves that travel along the spinal column, its narrowing causes nerve pain. Pain can occur in the cervical spine or neck, the thoracic or mid-back area of the spine, or the lumbar spine.
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
If you notice any of the following symptoms, be sure to tell your doctor:
- Neuropathies (numbness or a “pins and needles” sensation) in extremities
- Back weakness or instability
- Issues with balance
- Incontinence (e.g., bowel problems, urinary urgency)
- Hot-and-cold sensations
- Heavy, fatigued feeling in the legs
People 50 years of age and older have an increased risk of developing spinal stenosis. Younger people born with a small spinal canal can develop symptoms as well. The aging process can thicken and cause calcification of the ligaments connecting the spine and bones. In turn, the disks between vertebrae can degenerate. Bone spurs may grow into the spinal canal. These conditions narrow the spinal canal, cause pain, and lead to spinal stenosis. Other causes and risk factors for spinal stenosis include:
- Herniated discs
- Spinal injuries or trauma
Diagnosing & Treating Spinal Stenosis
Once diagnosed, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and/or corticosteroid injections can be used (for the short term) in conjunction with physical therapy.
If physical therapy does not provide adequate relief, surgery may be indicated. Surgical options include:
- Laminectomy surgery. This surgery entails removing the bone and soft tissues entrapping the nerves in the back and causing pain.
- Spinal fusion. If a spinal deformity (like scoliosis or kyphosis) is contributing to the progression of stenosis, this surgery helps to straighten the spine by permanently fusing vertebrae together. Screws and rods hold vertebrae together while they mend, and can expedite recovery time.
Potential Complications of Spinal Stenosis
Addressing your back pain is important because diagnosis is the key to finding the right treatment. Although rare, complications of not addressing spinal stenosis can arise and will be permanent. These include:
- Equilibrium/balance issues
Because spinal stenosis is linked to aging, we can all take precautions now to help prevent spinal stenosis later. Some of the ways in which we can guard against developing spinal stenosis include:
- Exercising regularly and staying conditioned, keeping back muscles are stronger and we are healthier
- Maintaining a healthy weight to minimize the strain placed on the spine
- Avoiding smoking as it speeds the aging process and contributes to premature spinal degeneration