Spinal stenosis occurs when one or more spaces within the spine begin to narrow, reducing the amount of room for the spinal cord and nerves to branch off. Over time, this tightened space can irritate, compress or pinch nerves and/or the spinal cord. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere along the spine, but it is most prevalent in the lower back or neck areas.
Adults over 50 or those with arthritis (also known as “wear-and-tear” disease) are more at risk of developing spinal stenosis. In some cases, a person may not even know they have it until their symptoms heighten with age or an X-ray reveals the condition.
More severe cases of spinal stenosis may require surgery to relieve pain and improve a person’s quality of life. However, surgery is typically a last resort after non-invasive treatment options fail to alleviate a person’s symptoms.
Where in the Spine Is Stenosis Likely to Occur?
Although spinal stenosis can develop anywhere along the spine, it typically occurs in two areas:
- Low back (known as lumbar canal stenosis)
- Neck (known as cervical spinal stenosis)
What Causes Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis can be a result of several different factors, but all alter the structure of the spine. Some of the more common causes of spinal stenosis include:
- Bone spurs – When a person has arthritis, the cartilage in their joints wears away, causing the bones to rub together. The body’s response to the trauma is to grow new bone (bone spurs). If bone spurs are located on the vertebrae, they can extend into the spinal canal and pinch nerves in the spine.
- Bulging or herniated discs – Discs are round cushioning pads between the vertebrae that absorb shock throughout the spine. Over time, these discs can dry out and crack. When this happens, the gel-like substance inside the disc can leak out and press on the spinal cord or nerves.
- Thickened ligaments – Ligaments are strong fibers that hold your spine together. Over time they can become thick and stiff — often due to arthritis. When this occurs, the ligaments can bulge into the spinal canal.
- Spinal injuries – Damage to and around the spine (like fractured or broken bones) often cause inflammation which can narrow the spinal canal and put pressure on the nerves.
- Cysts or tumors – In rare cases, cysts or tumors can form in between the spinal cord and vertebrae or within the spinal cord itself.
What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?
Since spinal stenosis is a condition that gradually worsens over time, symptoms may not be present when it first develops. Symptoms often vary from person to person, but the most common symptoms of spinal stenosis include:
- Lower back pain
- Neck pain
- Sciatica (pain begins in the buttocks and extends down the legs)
- A heavy sensation in the legs (can cause cramping)
- Weakness in the legs or feet
- Tingling or numbness in hands, arms, feet, legs or buttocks
- Aggravated pain while standing or walking for long periods of time
- Reduced pain while sitting, leaning or bending forward
- Difficulty controlling bladder or bowels (often only in severe cases)
How Can Spinal Stenosis Be Treated?
Treatment methods for spinal stenosis can vary depending on the severity of the symptoms. In most cases, a doctor will typically recommend starting with medications before escalating to surgical treatments.
Common treatments for spinal stenosis include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Cortisone injections
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Physical therapy
- Surgery (i.e., laminectomy, foraminotomy, spinal fusion, laminotomy and laminoplasty)
When Is Spinal Stenosis Surgery Typically Considered?
Once all other non-surgical treatments have been exhausted and a person’s symptoms don’t improve, a doctor may suggest surgery. Most people with spinal stenosis don’t require surgery. However, if the pain is intolerable and affects their daily activities, it may be time to speak with a doctor about surgical treatment options.
Do You Have Spinal Stenosis? Consult with the AllSpine Laser and Surgery Center in Atlanta
The effects of spinal stenosis can be more than just physical. The discomfort and inability to complete daily tasks without pain may impact your mental and emotional wellbeing. Speaking with our team of experienced and knowledgeable spine surgeons and pain management specialists can help ease your fears and give you practical next steps for your spinal stenosis treatment.