The word “stenosis” refers to the abnormal narrowing of a channel within the body. When used in reference to the spine, stenosis means the bone channel of the spinal cord has narrowed or is narrowing. When this happens, the nerves and spinal cord become compressed, which causes pain. Spinal stenosis often occurs in the upper (cervical) and lower (lumbar) spine.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
As this narrowing progresses, many people notice shooting leg pain (sciatica), cramping, stiffness, weakness or numbness. Although the spine is damaged, the spine itself may not hurt; instead your arms or legs may feel pain. Other symptoms include:
- Difficulty standing or walking
- Bladder or bowel control issues
- Weakness that causes your foot to drop to the ground
Arthritis is often a cause for spinal stenosis. However, spinal stenosis can be caused by other factors such as:
- Being over age 50
- Birth defects
- Bone fracture
- Cancerous tumors
- Damaged discs
- Paget’s disease is also a risk factor, but it is very uncommon. It is a chronic disorder that typically causes enlarged and abnormal bones.
Tests to Diagnose Spinal Stenosis
Your physician will perform a physical exam, as well as take a complete medical history and analyze your symptoms. He or she may also use imaging such as an MRI, CT scan or X-ray to determine the cause and location of the narrowing and better understand how to treat your pain.
Another test that may be needed is a myelogram. This involves injecting a liquid dye into your spine, which allows your physician to see what is causing the pressure on your spinal cord—for example, if it is due to nerves from herniated disks, bone spurs or a tumor.
Treatment Options for Spinal Stenosis
If over-the-counter pain relievers have not helped you, your physician may be able to prescribe other medications to treat your specific symptoms. For example, if you are experiencing muscle spasms, muscle relaxants may help. Other options include using a walker or back brace. However, if these methods are not helping relieve your pain, medical procedures are available from your physician, such as:
- Steroid injections
- Anesthetic nerve blocks
Surgical options can include decompression surgery (laminectomy) or laminoplasty. These procedures can be helpful for some people with severe pain. Both create more space between the bones which helps reduce inflammation and pain. There are other surgical interventions which may be less aggressive, but not all patients are good candidates.
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent or Treat Spinal Stenosis
As you age, your body changes and your spine is often affected. Because of this, it may not always be possible to prevent spinal stenosis. However, maintaining good health throughout your life can help reduce risks. Some specific tips include:
- Bending from your knees when lifting a heavy object
- Getting enough calcium to maintain bone health
- Maintaining good posture whether you are standing, sitting or lying down
- Maintaining a healthy weight to avoid excess pressure on your back
- Performing regular, moderate exercise to help improve your flexibility, strength and balance
If you believe you may have spinal stenosis now and are experiencing pain, you should see your physician and get help. In the meantime, you can apply ice the area to reduce inflammation or heat to soothe stiff joints and relax muscles.