What Is Spinal Stenosis?

June 25, 2019

Spinal Stenosis
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, degenerative spinal conditions affect as many as 95% of all people by the time they reach age 50. One of these changes, spinal stenosis, can be particularly troublesome.

But what is spinal stenosis? Are there other causes beyond aging, and, if so, how can you reduce your risk of developing this condition? It's hard to know just how many people live with spinal stenosis, but knowing its causes, symptoms and treatment options can help you notice (and prevent) problems earlier.

What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a medical condition resulting in a narrowing of your spinal canal, which houses your spinal cord and nerve roots. It's possible to have spinal stenosis in your upper back (cervical stenosis) or lower back (lumbar stenosis), although the condition is much more common in the lower back.

While getting older can contribute to this condition, other spine-changing factors, like spinal injuries, arthritis, tumors of the spine, inherited conditions and other diseases, like Paget's disease, may result in spinal stenosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?

As spinal stenosis develops, it puts pressure on the nerves in the spine. Many people experience symptoms that start out mild and get worse over time. Your symptoms may depend on where the stenosis, or narrowing, occurs. If you have cervical stenosis, your symptoms may include:

  • Neck pain
  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in your extremities
  • Problems with balance or walking

People living with lumbar stenosis may experience:

  • Back pain
  • Cramping or pain in the legs after standing for long periods of time or after walking
  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in the legs or feet

How Is Spinal Stenosis Diagnosed and Treated?

Diagnosing spinal stenosis begins with a physical exam and review of your medical history and symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend several diagnostic tests to confirm his or her suspicions, including:

  • X-rays
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Myelogram

Once stenosis is identified, your doctor can develop your personalized spinal stenosis treatment plan. In some cases, medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are enough to keep pain levels in check. Other people require surgery to manage their condition. The type of spinal surgery your doctor recommends depends on the cause of spinal stenosis, the severity of your symptoms, and your overall health.

Spinal stenosis treatment is essential — left untreated, this condition may lead to serious complications, including a loss of bladder and bowel control. That's why it's important to let your doctor know about any symptoms you experience as soon as possible.

Can I Prevent Spinal Stenosis?

There's no way to guarantee you won't develop spinal stenosis. But exercises and stretches you can do right at your desk may help reduce your risk. Regular exercise helps strengthen your back and maintain good posture, which may prevent stenosis.

Before beginning any exercise program, ask your doctor if it's right for you. In general, aerobic exercises, such as using a stationary bicycle at your desk, are great for maintaining spinal health. You may also benefit from tai chi, an exercise using a series of slow, deliberate movements to open up the spinal column. Certain stretches, like those performed in yoga, also help reduce back pain and increase mobility and flexibility.

It's important to recognize spinal stenosis symptoms early so that effective treatment can begin. If your doctor diagnoses this condition, your spinal stenosis treatment plan may include one or a combination of therapies like medications, stretching and aerobic exercises. Working together with your doctor can help you stop this problem early.

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