Spinal Problems Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces in and around the spine. The restriction of these spaces puts pressure on both the spinal canal and the nerves in the spine.

The term “spinal stenosis” refers to both the narrowing of the spinal canal itself and, used more loosely, to any narrowing of spaces around the spine, including between individual vertebrae. “Central stenosis” refers to narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the spinal cord. “Foraminal stenosis” is the compression of the nerves as they leave the spinal cord through the spaces called foramina.

Types of stenosis are also be defined by location:

  • Cervical stenosis describes constriction of the spinal canal and spinal cord compression in the neck.
  • Cervical foraminal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces (foramen) in the cervical spine, where nerves leave to go to other parts of the body, causing nerve compression.
  • Lumbar stenosis describes narrowing of the spinal canal and spinal cord compression in the lower back.
  • Lumbar foraminal stenosis is a narrowing of the foramen in the spine of the lower back, causing nerve compression.

“Cauda equina syndrome” is a rare but serious condition that occurs when the nerves at the base of the spinal cord are compressed. Symptoms may include loss of bowel or bladder control, physical problems having sex, or pain and weakness in the legs. See your doctor immediately if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is generally caused by changes in the spine due to aging. Other causes of spinal stenosis include:

  • Arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Calcium deposits on the spinal ligaments
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions
  • Inherited conditions, such as a small spinal canal or a curved spine
  • Injury
  • Paget’s disease
  • Too much fluoride in the body
  • Tumors of the spine.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis may cause no symptoms, or symptoms may start slowly and worsen over time. The narrowing of the spinal canal itself does not cause symptoms; in fact, symptoms are caused by inflammation of the nerves due to increased pressure. Symptoms of spinal stenosis include:

  • Foot problems
  • Loss of coordination
  • Numbness, weakness, cramping, or pain in the arms or legs
  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Pain going down the leg.

In cases of spinal lumbar stenosis, pain may decrease when you bend forward, sit, or lie down. Pain may get worse when you walk short distances.

Treatment Options for Spinal Stenosis

Initial possible treatments for spinal stenosis include analgesics to relieve pain and anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce both pain and swelling. Your doctor may also administer cortisone injections to help reduce swelling. This treatment usually provides only temporary pain relief, and is often not recommended repeatedly because of the potential side effects.

Additionally, physical therapy and exercise may help to help stabilize the spine, build endurance, and increase flexibility. Alternative treatments that may help include chiropractic work, massage therapy, and acupuncture. Talk to your doctor before you start an alternative or complementary treatment plan for spinal stenosis.

If the symptoms of stenosis interfere with walking, cause problems with bowel or bladder function, or cause nervous system problems, spinal surgery may be necessary. The goal of the surgery is to relieve pressure by widening the spinal canal.

Resources

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Staff (n.d.). Spinal stenosis. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Spinal_Stenosis/spinal_stenosis_ff.asp

University of South Carolina Neurosurgery Staff. (n.d.). Lumbar spinal stenosis. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from http://specialtyclinics.med.sc.edu/lumbar_spinal_stenosis.asp

Neurology Today Staff. (2006). Cervical spine. Retrieved March 24, 2010, from http://www.neurosurgerytoday.org/what/patient_e/cervical.asp