Spinal stenosis usually occurs as a person ages and the disks become drier and start to bulge. At the same time, the bones and ligaments of the spine thickens or grow larger due to arthritis or long-term swelling (inflammation).
Spinal stenosis may also be caused by:
Spinal stenosis may also be caused by:
- Arthritis of the spine, usually in middle-aged or elderly people
- Bone diseases, such as Paget's disease of bone and achondroplasia
- Defect or growth in the spine that was present from birth (congenital defect)
- Herniated or slipped disk, which often happened in the past
- Injury that causes pressure on the nerve roots or the spinal cord
- Tumors in the spine.
It may cause pain as well as tingling or numbness that radiates from the neck, down the shoulders and into the arms and hands. Pressure on the spinal cord, as it runs through the cervical spine, can cause weakness and spasticity in the arms and legs, called cervical spondylotic myelopathy. Spasticity means you lose control over your muscles and have difficulty walking, placing your feet, or dropping objects. You may have trouble with balance and coordination such as shuffling or tripping while walking.
Thoracic StenosisThoracic spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal in the middle part of your back becomes narrowed. This creates pressure on your spine and can cause pain in your back and legs, loss of bladder or bowel function, and problems with balance. It is a rare condition.
Lumbar Spinal StenosisLumbar spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal in your lower back becomes narrowed. This creates pressure on your spine and can cause pain, weakness, or numbness in your lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet. It is a common condition as people age, and it is most often caused by arthritis in the spine.
SymptomsOften, symptoms will get worse slowly over time. Most often, symptoms will be on one side of the body or the other, but may involve both legs.
- Numbness, cramping, or pain in the back, buttocks, thighs, or calves, or in the neck, shoulders, or arms
- Weakness of part of a leg or arm
Patients with spinal stenosis may be able to ride a bicycle with little pain.
More serious symptoms include:
- Difficulty or poor balance when walking
- Problems controlling urine or bowel movements
Signs and testsDuring the physical exam, your doctor will try to find the location of the pain and figure out how it affects your movement. You will be asked to:
- Sit, stand, and walk. While you walk, your doctor may ask you to try walking on your toes and then your heels.
- Bend forward, backward, and sideways
- Lift your legs straight up while lying down. If the pain is worse when you do this, you may have sciatica, especially if you also feel numbness or tingling in one of your legs.
To test nerve function, the doctor will use a rubber hammer to check your reflexes. Touching your legs in many places with a pin, cotton swab, or feather tests how well you feel. Your doctor will tell you to speak up if there are areas where you have less feeling from the pin, cotton, or feather.
A brain and nervous system (neurological) examination can confirm leg weakness and decreased sensation in the legs. The following tests may be done:
- Spinal MRI or spinal CT scan
- X-ray of the spine
TreatmentWhen your back pain does not go away, or it gets more painful at times, learning to take care of your back at home and prevent repeat episodes of your back pain can help you avoid surgery.
Your doctor and other health professionals will help you manage your pain and keep you as active as possible.
- Your doctor may refer you for physical therapy. The physical therapist will help you try to reduce your pain, using stretches. The therapist will show you how to do exercises that make your neck muscles stronger.
- You may also see a massage therapist, and someone who performs acupuncture. Sometimes a few visits will help your back or neck pain.
- Cold packs and heat therapy may help your pain during flare-ups.
- A number of different medications can help with your back pain. See also: Medicines for chronic pain
If the pain does not respond to these treatments, or you lose movement or feeling, you may need surgery. Surgery is done to relieve pressure on the nerves or spinal cord.
You and your doctor can decide when you need to have surgery for these symptoms. Spinal stenosis symptoms often become worse over time, but this may happen very slowly.
- People who had long-term back pain before their surgery are likely to still have some pain afterwards. Spinal fusion probably will not take away all the pain and other symptoms.
- Even when using MRI scans or other tests, it is hard for your surgeon to always predict whether you will improve and how much relief surgery will provide.
- Spinal fusion
Many people with spinal stenosis are able to be active for many years with the condition, although they may need to make some changes in their activities or work.Spine surgery will often partly or fully relieve symptoms. However, people who had long-term back pain before their surgery are still likely to have some pain afterward. Spinal fusion probably will not take away all of the pain and other symptoms.
Spine problems are possible after spine surgery. The area of the spinal column above and below a spinal fusion are more likely to be stressed when the spine moves. Also, if you needed more than one kind of back surgery (such as laminectomy and spinal fusion), you may be more likely to have future problems.