Spinal stenosis is a condition that refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal. In most cases, this can cause visible signs such as pain and weakness in arms or legs and hindered movement. Spinal stenosis occurs when the nerves that travel through the spine are crushed by going through the smaller space.
Pain may be experienced when pressure is applied to the spinal cord or nerve roots. Several factors can cause this condition. These include:
The disks that act as cushions between the vertebrae tend to shrink as a person gets older, leading to spinal stenosis. Additionally, the ligaments and tendons surrounding the vertebrae become less elastic, which can cause this condition.
Advanced degeneration of the spine
As a person ages, fluid in intervertebral disks is lost; this leads to decreased shock absorption and corresponding damage to spinal structures. Additionally, the facet joints (those that face one vertebra to the next) deteriorate.
Tumors, cysts and fractures
Any bone growth or breakdown can lead to spinal stenosis due to changes in the spine structure. Broken vertebrae (fractures), herniated disks, and tumors can all cause pressure on surrounding nerves, leading to pain and other symptoms.
An infection, such as meningitis can cause inflammation and swelling in the spinal cord and nerves. This can lead to stenosis.
A herniated disc is a condition that can cause spinal stenosis. The disk is the cushion between the vertebrae in the spine. With age, these disks lose fluid and shrink, leading to a herniated disk. This means that the disk bulges out and may press on a nerve, leading to pain and other symptoms.
Stenosis may also be caused by ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that affects the spine, pelvis, and other areas in the body.
Types of Spinal Stenosis
There are three types of spinal stenosis:
Congenital Spinal Stenosis
CSS is a congenital condition, meaning it is present at birth. Narrowing in the canal may come from a combination of malformation and decreased disc size or degenerative changes. It can also have no known cause. This type is rare.
Acquired Spinal Stenosis
This type of stenosis is caused by some other condition or injury that results in the spinal cord or nerves being compressed. It is the most common type of stenosis.
Neurogenic Spinal Stenosis
This type is caused by damage to the spinal cord, leading to loss of nerve function and numbness. This type is also known as a “root” type of stenosis because it affects the roots of the brachial plexus nerves, which supply feeling and movement to arms, hands, and fingers.
Spinal Stenosis can be classified depending on the area of the spine that is most affected. The three classifications are cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. Stenosis at the thoracic level affects the upper back, while stenosis at the lumbar level affects the lower back.
Symptoms related to cervical stenosis include numbness in the hands and arms, weakness in the limbs, and a loss of balance. Thoracic stenosis typically causes pain in the lower back and legs, which worsens when bending forward or sitting for a long time. People with lumbar stenosis tend to experience problems walking or standing due to pain in the lower back and legs.
Diagnosing Spinal Stenosis
An orthopedist will do a complete physical exam of the spine. Also, the doctor may order an MRI or CT scan to see the extent of the stenosis. Other tests such as electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction studies (NCS) may also be ordered to check for any damage to the nerves.
Treating Spinal Stenosis
If the stenosis is mild and there is no nerve damage, the spine surgeon may recommend a physical therapy program. This can help to strengthen the back and improve flexibility. Bracing or using a cane may also be recommended to help with stability.
Depending on the severity of your condition, you may need to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or steroids to reduce pain and inflammation. Narcotic pain relievers can also be used for severe pain.
For more complicated cases with damage to the spinal cord or nerves, surgery may be recommended to relieve the pressure on the spine. Spine surgery may involve removing the disk or bone causing the compression, or fusing vertebrae to increase the space in the spinal canal.
Preventing Spinal Stenosis
There are several steps you can take to help prevent or reduce the symptoms of spinal stenosis:
Maintaining an active lifestyle can help to reduce stiffness and increase flexibility. Regular activity can also strengthen the back and improve balance, which reduces the risk of falls that could aggravate symptoms.
Keeping a healthy weight can reduce strain on your spine and decrease pain from [spinal stenosis]. Talk with your doctor about suitable exercise regimens that may be used to help with weight management.
Smoking can increase the risk of osteoporosis, which could lead to fractures and worsening symptoms from spinal stenosis. If you currently smoke, it is important to quit to reduce your risk for future complications from spinal stenosis.
Injuring your back can lead to spinal stenosis. Use proper lifting techniques and avoid heavy lifting or straining activities that could cause injury.
Use Proper Body Mechanics
Poor body mechanics, such as improper lifting, bad posture, or leaning too far forward when sitting at a desk, can increase strain on the spine and lead to pain from spinal stenosis. While using proper body mechanics may require some effort, it can help to reduce pain and protect your back over time.
Stress increases muscle tension or decreases blood flow to the spine’s muscles. Managing stress can be beneficial in many ways, including reducing your risk of developing spinal stenosis.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of stenosis, it is important to see a doctor for an evaluation. Depending on the severity of your condition, treatment may include physical therapy, medications, or surgery. By taking steps to prevent further damage to the spine and practicing good body mechanics, you can help manage spinal stenosis symptoms.
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