Stenosis of the spine, or spinal stenosis, is a painful condition produced from narrowing (stenosis) of the spinal cord. The pain that accompanies spinal stenosis can lead to decreased quality of life, increased medical costs and problems such as muscle wasting and weakness due to lack of physical activity. Spinal stenosis, which can cause relentless pain, is a common cause of persistent low back pain. Aging can cause the spinal canal to narrow, leading to spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis causes pressure on nerves that affect other areas of the body. The result can be numbness in the extremities and pain. Discomfort and tingling in the shoulder, arms and hands is possible. Severe spinal stenosis in the lower back or lumbar area can cause loss of bladder and bowel control because of compression in the nerves that control those functions.
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
A hallmark symptom of spinal stenosis is pain and cramping in the legs, relieved with sitting or bending. Leg cramps can be the result of vascular disease that worsens with walking and improves when you stop. Spinal stenosis can cause complete disability from pain that travels from the hip or back and down the leg. Foot pain, numbness and weakness can become severe. Feelings of numbness in the feet can make it difficult to know when your foot is hitting the ground, causing imbalance and fall risk.
If spinal stenosis affects the neck or cervical area, it can cause headache and weakness of the arms and hands, as well as upper extremity pain and weakness.
Spinal stenosis can occur later in life from bone degeneration known as osteoarthritis. It can also be present at birth.
Changes that occur with aging make the vertebrae softer. When that happens, a disc in the vertebrae can rupture, causing a herniation that presses on the spinal cord and causing spinal stenosis. The vertebrae can also become misplaced because of changes in the ligaments that hold them in place. The result can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis. Abnormal growths (tumors) and trauma can cause spinal stenosis as well. A condition known as Paget's disease is also associated with narrowing of the spinal cord.
Mild cases of spinal stenosis may respond to pain medication and activity limitation. Exercises that increase the mobility of the spine are important and should be guided by your physician with the help of a physical therapist. Steroid injections can calm inflamed nerve roots and help relieve pain. A back support may help. When spinal stenosis is diagnosed early, abdominal strengthening exercises can help to prevent worsening symptoms from weak abdominal muscle that put strain on the back.
Several surgical approaches may help, but the risks and benefits should be thoroughly discussed with your physician. Sometimes the spine is fused to prevent vertebrae from slipping. Surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord, laminotomy or decompression laminectomy may be performed.
Maintain good posture, bend at your knees when lifting, use a firm mattress, maintain flexibility through stretching, and remain physically active to prevent spinal stenosis. If you drive a lot, or when taking long trips, use a lumbar support. The risk of spinal stenosis increases with age, making it important to take preventive measures to ensure a healthy spine as we grow older.