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Spinal stenosis: Causes, symptoms and treatment

July 09, 2019

Estimates indicate one-quarter to one-half a million Americans suffer symptoms of spinal stenosis—that’s about five out of every 1,000 people over the age of 50. Stenosis occurs when the spaces within the spine begin to narrow, causing compression on the nerves traveling through and branching out of the spinal canal.

There are two types of spinal stenosis: cervical and lumbar. Cervical stenosis is when the narrowing of the spinal canal occurs in the neck, while lumbar stenosis, the more common type, happens in the lower back.

Symptoms and causes

While some people may not experience any symptoms, others might have gradually worsening pain, weakness, numbness, and a tingling sensation, paired with weakness in the muscles. It causes pain most commonly in the neck and lower back, but it also can affect the legs, shoulders, and arms.

There are times when someone is born with a smaller-than-normal spinal canal, which can lead to the constriction of the nerves as they grow. However, most spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows over time.

Damage and wear of the bones of the spine, from conditions such as osteoarthritis, can cause bone spurs. These tiny shards of bone grow into the canal and restrict the nerves. Certain diseases of the spine also can be a factor, such as tumors, arthritis, and Paget’s disease, which causes bone overgrowth in the spine.

Most stenosis sufferers are over the age of 50. The risk of developing the condition increases with age, and your risk is higher if you are female, born with a narrow spinal canal, or suffered a previous spinal injury. Due to the effect female sex hormones have on musculoskeletal degeneration, postmenopausal women experience far more incidences of spinal stenosis than men.

Younger people also can experience degenerative changes resulting in the condition, but it is more likely other causes need to be explored. Spinal imaging can reveal those issues, which include congenital deformities, such as scoliosis, and genetic diseases affecting bone and muscle development.

Diagnosis and treatment

Generally, a rheumatologist will discuss symptoms with you and do a complete medical history. If spinal stenosis is suspected, a physical exam will be performed, and the doctor may order X-rays or a CT scan to visualize the spinal cord and nerves. An MRI could be utilized to look at the spinal cord and nerves, and an electromyogram can check the nerves of the legs.

There is no cure for stenosis, however regular exercise, medication, and sometimes surgical procedures can help mitigate the symptoms and offer relief. Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy, which will help you learn exercises to build and maintain muscle to strengthen the hips, quadriceps, and hamstrings.

A medication to reduce pain and muscle spasms could be prescribed. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and anti-inflammatories can help as well. If these don’t provide relief, in rare situations, your doctor might try a cortisone injection directly into the spinal cord.

As with other conditions, surgery would always be a last resort. A decompression laminectomy may be an option. This is a surgical procedure to remove overgrowth and bone spurs from the spinal canal, relieving the pressure from the nerves. While surgery can provide better short-term results than non-surgical options, the results can vary. Spinal Stenosis is an ongoing condition that cannot be cured, and treatments options should be discussed with your doctor.

One of the most difficult results of stenosis is a slow, steady loss of leg strength. Remaining active produces some of the best results in living with the condition, especially swimming, regular stretching, and moderate walking. Modify your activity to minimize pain and reduce heavy lifting or long-distance walking. Speak with your doctor for information and help on managing the pain and staying active, safely.

If you are dealing with back pain and suspect spinal stenosis could be the cause, contact Kettering Brain & Spine for an appointment today. Call 1-844-211-5482 or click here to schedule an appointment.