Spinal Stenosis

What is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is narrowing of the spinal column due to arthritis that leads to a bony overgrowth of vertebrae and a thickening of ligaments. If a significant overgrowth occurs, the narrowing can press on the nerves in the spine. Because the affected nerves have many functions, the condition may cause diverse problems in the lower body, including back pain, pain or numbness in the legs as well as constipation or urinary incontinence.

In people with spinal stenosis, the spine is narrowed in one or more of three parts:

  • The space at the center of the spine
  • The areas where nerves branch out from the spine to other areas of the body
  • The space between the bones of the spine

Spinal Stenosis Causes

People are more likely to develop spinal stenosis as they age. It is mostly seen in people older than 50. However, it also occurs in people with certain types of arthritis and related conditions, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and Paget’s Disease. Younger people with a spine injury or a narrow spinal canal or people with scoliosis (a twisted spine) are also at risk. An injury, a spinal tumor, or having too much fluoride or calcium in the body can also make someone more likely to develop spinal stenosis.

Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Numbness, weakness, cramping or pain in the arms or leg
  • Pain going down the leg
  • Foot problems

Some people may have a very serious type of spinal stenosis called cauda equine syndrome. With this condition, people may have a loss of control of the bowel or bladder and problems having sex as well as the symptoms outlined above.

Spinal Stenosis Diagnosis

The doctor will perform a physical exam, ask questions about the patient's medical history, and order imaging tests, which may include x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized topography (CT) and bone scans. In some cases, the doctor may inject liquid dye into the spinal column to see it better. This is called a myelogram test.

Spinal Stenosis Treatments

The medical treatments for spinal stenosis include pain relievers (analgesics), nonsteroids anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and surgery. Surgery is usually considered when symptoms result in nerve damage and are causing problems with walking or bowel or bladder function.

Spinal Stenosis Self Care

There are different ways to reduce back pain. These include physical therapy or therapeutic exercises such as yoga or tai chi. However it is very important to talk to a doctor or physical therapist before beginning an exercise program. Limiting activity and using assistive devices such as braces and canes can also help with back pain.