What is Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis is defined as the narrowing of the spinal canal, most often in the cervical (neck) area and in the lower back (lumbar) region. This condition places pressure on the spinal cord, with patients most often experiencing problems when inflammation of the nerves occur as the pressure is increased. There are more than 200,000 cases of spinal stenosis per year in the United States, making it a highly treatable condition with a wide variety of options for relief.
While some are born with a congenital form of spinal stenosis, the majority of patients develop this condition as part of the body’s natural aging process and due to general wear and tear of the spine. While it may not be initially apparent, most patients will eventually feel symptoms as the condition progresses.
Because spinal stenosis most often develops in the cervical or lumbar areas of the spine, it is important to note the differences and symptoms to watch for:
- Lumbar spinal stenosis may be reminiscent of sciatica – Causing tingling, weakness, numbness and discomfort in the lower back that radiates through the legs. Patients typically report pain and symptoms that worsen with walking and other lower body-centered activities.
- Cervical spinal stenosis is directly linked with spinal cord compression (known as myelopathy), which, in extreme cases, can cause very debilitating issues such as weakness or even paralysis. Additionally, patients suffering from cervical spinal stenosis may notice pain, tingling and numbness that radiates from the neck through the shoulders and arms.
The narrowing associated with spinal stenosis is generally either within the spinal canal itself, the canals at the base of the spine or the openings between vertebrae. All of these areas also function as passages where sensitive nerve roots are located and where nerves enter and exit the spine. Because of the proximity of these nerves and nerve roots, even minor narrowing can cause significant pain due to the pressure on them.
Spinal Stenosis Causes
Spinal stenosis can either be inherited or developed. Some of the most common causes include:
- General wear and tear due to the body’s natural aging process
- Genetic predisposition or congenital defect
- Scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that places significant pressure onto area nerves and ligaments.
- Bulging and herniated discs, which causes inflammation and pain when the gel-like inner material of a vertebral disc leaks into the spinal column and compresses nearby nerves
- Arthritis, in which the protective cartilage surrounding the joints is worn away
- Sudden and unexpected trauma and/or accident
- Other health issues, such as spinal tumors or Paget’s disease
While a number of underlying conditions can contribute to spinal stenosis, it is most often attributed to aging and the eventual degeneration of the spine that comes with the aging process. Because of this, spinal stenosis is most common in men and women over 50 years old. However, younger people born with a genetic predisposition or who suffer a back injury can also develop spinal stenosis.
Spinal Stenosis Symptoms
There may be no initial symptoms of spinal stenosis, or they may develop slowly and worsen over time. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Pain and discomfort in the back and/or neck
- Numbness, weakness, cramping or pain that radiates into the arms and hands or legs and feet
- Loss of bladder or bowel control, in certain extreme cases in which heavy pressure is placed onto nerves in the lower back
Many of the symptoms of spinal stenosis are similar to those of other spine conditions. It can be difficult to differentiate one condition from another, so visiting a spine specialist right away is essential in obtaining an accurate diagnosis. Once a patient’s condition is determined, this allows our physicians to build the most effective treatment plan to give each patient back their quality of life.
Spinal Stenosis Non-Surgical Treatment Options
There are a variety of non-surgical treatment options for spinal stenosis. At Laser Spine & Orthopedics®, our physicians may try one or a combination of many treatments to determine what works best for each patient. Some of the most commonly recommended conservative options include:
- Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Anti-inflammatory and pain relief medication, whether muscle relaxers prescribed by a physician or ibuprofen purchased over-the-counter, may help to alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with spinal stenosis.
- Physical Therapy
Working with a knowledgeable physical therapist can help patients to regain strength in their muscles while maintaining the flexibility and stability of their spine. Specialized exercises designed to strengthen the spine can help reduce pain.
We offer a variety of steroid injections that target the precise nerve roots affected by spinal stenosis. These injections can relieve pain, reduce inflammation and alleviate pressure – In fact, most patients mention feeling relief right away.
A specialized back brace worn for some or all of the day can help with proper posture while taking pressure off the spine. Braces can also help to force back muscles to rest while encouraging healing.
Our Minimally Invasive Treatment Approach
At Laser Spine & Orthopedics®, we offer advanced procedures that can identify the exact location and cause of your spinal stenosis. This allows us to most effectively address it, based on your symptoms, the severity of your condition and your individual health history.
Before we determine that minimally invasive surgery is the best course of action, we will always recommend conservative treatments first. In the event that a patient’s condition is causing loss of motor and/or bodily functions or if initial conservative treatments are not successful, we may recommend surgical options.
Many common surgeries performed to treat spinal stenosis, such as laminectomies and laminoplasties, remove portions of affected vertebrae and create space inside the spinal canal. This generally reverses the narrowing that is part of spinal stenosis, takes pressure off of sensitive nerves and nerve roots and relieves the associated inflammation and pain.
Because our minimally invasive surgeries use small incisions and were designed to lessen trauma to surrounding areas, there is less blood loss and scarring involved (versus a traditional open surgery). As a result, recovery times are generally much faster and patients experience relief sooner than later.