After years of suffering from pain, numbness, or weakness, you finally saw a doctor who understands your condition and has diagnosed you with spinal stenosis. You are not alone in your diagnosis, as around 250,000 to 500,000 people are living with spinal stenosis in the United States. Spinal stenosis can greatly impact a patient’s ability to work, play, and live their best life.
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with spinal stenosis or suspect you are suffering from spinal stenosis, here are the answers to a few questions you might have.
What Exactly Is Spinal Stenosis?
Your spinal cord runs through the spinal canal. The spinal cord is responsible for sending and receiving messages between the body’s nerves and your brain. The nerves access the spinal cord through very narrow spaces in the spinal canal. When these spaces are compacted, the body cannot successfully send and receive messages to the spinal nerves.
This compaction and narrowing of the area around the spinal cord is called spinal stenosis. There are two different types of spinal stenosis: lumbar spinal stenosis, which is more common and occurs in the lower back, and cervical spinal stenosis, which occurs in the neck.
Some patients are born with a narrow spinal column and others will develop spinal stenosis later in life. Common causes of spinal stenosis include:
- Spinal injuries. A car accident or sudden jolt to the spinal cord can damage the vertebrae or even cause a piece of the vertebrae to become detached and place pressure on the spinal cord.
- Spinal surgery. Swelling after back surgery can cause spinal stenosis. Typically, this is temporary, and the pain will subside as the inflammation goes down.
- Ligament thickening. Your spinal vertebrae are held in place by a series of ligaments. Over time, these ligaments can harden and become thicker.
- Spinal tumors. A tumor or abnormal growth on the spinal column can constrict the nerves and lead to spinal stenosis.
The natural aging process is another common cause of spinal stenosis. As a person ages, their vertebrae can lose their bounce and become narrower. This causes the spinal cord to shorten and the person to lose height and leads to spinal stenosis.
What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?
Some patients don’t have any symptoms of spinal stenosis or the symptoms are so minor that it doesn’t impact their daily life. However, for other patients, the symptoms associated with spinal stenosis are devastating and require immediate treatment. Here are a few of the most common symptoms associated with spinal stenosis:
- Neck or back pain. Patients with lumbar spinal stenosis will typically experience lower back pain. Cervical spinal stenosis–related pain occurs in the upper back and neck.
- Numbness. Compression on the spinal nerves can cause numbness throughout the body, particularly the lower and upper extremities, such as the hands or feet.
- Shooting pain down the legs. Lumbar spinal stenosis can cause shooting pains or a pins-and-needles feeling in the backside and down the legs.
- Weakness. Both cervical and lumbar spinal stenosis can lead to a feeling of weakness in the extremities. Patients may trip, stumble, or drop things because they are having trouble controlling their arms and legs.
In extreme cases, severe spinal stenosis can lead to long-term loss of sensation or paralysis in the arms and legs.
How Will a Doctor Diagnose Spinal Stenosis?
After taking a thorough medical history, your doctor will use several different tests to diagnose lumbar or cervical spinal stenosis. For example, your doctor may use an X-ray to determine if the symptoms of spinal stenosis are caused by damage to the spinal vertebrae or growth on the vertebrae, such as bone spurs.
An MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, test provides doctors with a detailed image of the spine. This allows your doctors to pinpoint the exact nerves that are being compressed and the reason why you are experiencing symptoms. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also recommend a CT, or computerized tomography, scan as well.
What Are the Treatments Available?
Luckily, there are several ways you can find relief from the symptoms associated with spinal stenosis. The type of treatment available is dependent upon your symptoms, the cause of your spinal stenosis, and whether you are diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis or cervical spinal stenosis.
For example, if the pain is minimal, the doctor might recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. Cortisone shots into the spine can also help you find relief.
In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend surgery, such as a laminectomy or a foraminotomy. A laminectomy involves removing a portion of the vertebrae, which provides more space for the nerves to function properly. A foraminotomy involves widening the opening that the nerves pass through.
Spinal stenosis is a common condition that can be diagnosed through non-invasive tests and is highly treatable. If you have any more questions, contact Southwest Florida Neurosurgical & Rehab Associates.