Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis causes narrowing in your spine.

The narrowing puts pressure on your nerves and spinal cord and can cause pain.

Spinal stenosis occurs mostly in people older than 50. Younger people with a spine injury or a narrow spinal canal are also at risk. Diseases such as arthritis and scoliosis can cause spinal stenosis, too. 

Spinal stenosis usually occurs as a person ages. Due to the spinal discs becoming drier and starting to bulge. The bones and ligaments of the spine thicken or grow larger which is caused by arthritis or long-term swelling.

Spinal stenosis may also be caused by:

  • Arthritis of the spine, usually in middle-aged or elderly people
  • Bone diseases   
  • Defect or growth in the spine that was present from birth
  • Herniated or slipped disc, which often happened in the past
  • Injury that causes pressure on the nerve roots or the spinal cord
  • Tumors in the spine
  • Fracture or injury of a spinal bone

Symptoms often get worse slowly over time. Most often, symptoms will be on one side of the body, but may involve both legs.

Symptoms include:
  • Numbness, cramping, or pain in the back, buttocks, thighs, or calves, or in the neck, shoulders, or arms
  • Weakness of part of a leg or arm

Symptoms are more likely to be present or get worse when you stand or walk. They often lessen or disappear when you sit down or lean forward. Most people with spinal stenosis cannot walk for a long period.

More serious symptoms include:
  • Difficulty or poor balance when walking
  • Problems controlling urine or bowel movements

Doctors diagnose spinal stenosis with a physical exam and imaging tests. 

During a physical exam, your doctor will try to find the location of the pain and determine how it affects your movement. You will be asked to:

  • Sit, stand, and walk. While you walk, your doctor may ask you to try walking on your toes and then your heels.
  • Bend forward, backward, and sideways. Your pain may worsen with these movements.
  • Lift your legs straight up while lying down. If the pain is worse when you do this, you may have sciatica, especially if you also feel numbness or tingling in one of your legs.

Your doctor will also move your legs in different positions, including bending and straightening your knees. This is to check your strength and ability to move.

To test nerve function, the doctor uses a rubber hammer to check your reflexes. To test how well your nerves sense feeling, the doctor touches your legs in many places with a pin, cotton swab, or feather.

A brain and nervous system (neurologic) examination helps confirm leg weakness and decreased sensation in the legs.

The following tests may be done:
  • EMG
  • Spinal MRI or spinal CT scan
  • X-ray of the spine

 

Treatments include medications, physical therapy, braces, and surgery.

Your doctor and other health professionals will help you manage your pain and keep you as active as possible.

  • Your doctor may refer you for physical therapy. The physical therapist will teach you stretches and exercises that make your back muscles stronger.
  • You may also see a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and someone who performs acupuncture. Sometimes, a few visits will help your back or neck pain.
  • Cold packs and heat therapy may help your pain during flare-ups.
Treatments for back pain caused by spinal stenosis include:
  • Medicines that may help with your back pain.
  • A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy to help you better understand your pain and teach you how to manage back pain.
  • An epidural spinal injection (ESI) involves injecting medicine directly into the space around your spinal nerves or spinal cord.

Spinal stenosis symptoms often become worse over time, but this may happen slowly. If the pain does not respond to these treatments, or you lose movement or feeling, you may need surgery.

  • Surgery is done to relieve pressure on the nerves or spinal cord.
  • You and your doctor can decide when you need to have surgery for these symptoms.

Surgery may include removing a bulging disc,removing part of the vertebra bone, or widening the opening where your spinal nerves are located.

During some spinal surgeries, the surgeon will remove some bone to create more room for your spinal nerves or spinal column. The surgeon will then fuse some of the spine bones to make your spine more stable. But this will make your back more stiff.

 

Many people with spinal stenosis are able to be active with the condition, although they may need to make some changes in their activities or work.

Spine surgery will often partly or fully relieve symptoms in your legs or arms. It is hard to predict if you will improve and how much relief surgery will provide. 

  • People who had long-term back pain before their surgery are likely to have some pain after surgery. 
  • If you needed more than one kind of back surgery, you may be more likely to have future problems.
  • The area of the spinal column above and below a spinal fusion are more likely to be stressed and have problems and arthritis in the future. This may lead to more surgeries later.

In rare cases, injuries caused by pressure on the nerves are permanent, even if the pressure is relieved.