Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal, which puts inordinate pressure on the surrounding nerves and tissues. The resulting symptoms can include extreme pain, tingling, and loss of sensation and mobility.
Most people with spinal stenosis have what’s called acquired spinal stenosis. In this instance, the person’s spinal column was relatively normal, but it became narrower as time went on.
Typically, symptoms from acquired spinal stenosis begin manifesting in people in the 50s or perhaps 40s.
The other, rarer form of spinal stenosis is congenital spinal stenosis. That means you were born with a narrow spinal canal.
Alternatively, your DNA has made it more likely that your spinal canal will become narrow at an earlier age. People with congenital spinal stenosis may develop symptoms in their 40s, 30s, 20s, or even earlier.
In any event, there’s no way to detect or prevent congenital spinal stenosis prior to birth, and most people with it don’t realize they have it until adulthood, when the symptoms first appear.
What is Spinal Stenosis?
The spinal canal protects our spinal cord in much the same way that the skull protects our brain.
As time goes on, the spinal canal gets a little narrower – that’s natural.
Our ligaments get thicker, we develop bone spurs. These, and other developments, start taking up more room in the spinal canal.
With spinal stenosis, this narrowing of the canal is more extreme, shrinking the amount of space and putting extra pressure on the surrounding nerves. This, in turns, affects sensation and mobility in parts of your body.
The condition can sometimes be referred to as neuroforaminal stenosis, which specifically refers to pinching of a spinal nerve at the opening between vertebrae.
What Are the Symptoms?
Spinal stenosis, whether acquired or congenital, can be very painful. Symptoms may include:
- Numbness, tingling, or stiffness in a hand, arm, foot, or leg
- Pain in the source of the spinal stenosis, such as the neck (cervical stenosis) or lower back (lumbar stenosis)
- Pain spreading to the shoulders, buttocks, and extremities
- Leg cramping and weakness
- Problems with walking and balance
How Can Spinal Stenosis Be Treated?
Regardless of whether you’ve been diagnosed with acquired or congenital stenosis, your doctor may suggest various treatments before considering surgery. For instance, the doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or epidural injections.
Exercise is also key. While it may be advisable to avoid strenuous activity that puts pressure on your back and could worsen your spinal stenosis symptoms, you need to remain active. Otherwise, the muscles around your spine will simply get weaker. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you put together an exercise program.
You may need to modify some of your physical activities. For example, if you have spinal stenosis in your lower back (the lumbar region), then you should take some pressure off that area. In that case, a stationary bike – where you can lean on the handlebars – might be a better exercise than walking upright. Likewise, you may want to use a reclining chair when relaxing at home.
If the pain, however, becomes so severe that it impairs your ability to work or exercise, or even impacts your quality of life, then surgery may be the next step.
What Are the Options for Spinal Stenosis Surgery?
There are a few surgical options for spinal stenosis treatment:
If a disc in your backbone is responsible for putting pressure on the nerves, then a discectomy may be required to remove part of the disc. The incision in this procedure is usually small.
The surgeon makes an incision to gain access to your spine. He or she then removes or trims anything that could be pushing against the nerves, for example, bone spurs. Ideally, the procedure gives more space back to your spinal canal. If all goes well, you could possibly go home within a day.
Using metal hardware and/or a graft from your pelvic bone, the surgeon fuses two or more bones in your spine so that they can’t move. By locking the bones in place, the procedure keeps the individual vertebrae from slipping and putting pressure on the nerves. While bending may be more difficult, the surgery should relieve the pain from spinal stenosis.
As fusion is a more invasive surgery than the other two procedures, you will likely need to stay in the hospital for a few days afterward.
Find Relief from Spinal Stenosis
If you have either congenital spinal stenosis or acquired spinal stenosis and you’re dealing with significant pain or loss of function, it’s imperative that you talk to your doctor and discuss your options.