What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis explained by San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas Texas top pain doctors

Spinal stenosis is a chronic pain condition that arises as the result of compression or impingement of the spinal cord or surrounding peripheral nerves. The spinal cord resides within the spinal canal, which is the protective passageway formed by the vertebrae of the spine. Despite the protection offered by the spinal canal, the spinal cord and spinal nerves can still be vulnerable to disruption by impingement or injury. This can occur within the spinal canal itself, the area where the peripheral nerves project out from the spinal cord, and the space between each set of vertebrae.

When the nerves in these areas become irritated or compressed, it can lead to significant symptoms of chronic pain and decreased mobility in the legs.

Common symptoms reported by individuals with spinal stenosis include:

  • Pain within the legs and arms
  • Pain in the neck
  • Back pain
  • Muscle cramping
  • Reduced mobility
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Radiating pain in the legs
  • Foot problems

Some individuals may report no symptoms at all. In other cases, individuals describe that their symptoms tend to emerge gradually and slowly worsen over time. As these symptoms become more severe, they begin to cause impairment in the individual’s daily functioning. Spinal stenosis may lead to difficulty walking or even trouble standing for extending periods of time.

Causes Of Spinal Stenosis

The most common cause of spinal stenosis can be attributed to degenerative arthritis, which is probably why this condition is reported most frequently among those who are over the age of 50. Degenerative arthritis develops as the result of daily wear and tear. Over time, this daily wear and tear leads to a breakdown in the connective tissue that lies between the vertebrae of the spine. This connective tissue’s function is to provide cushion between the individual bones of the spine. As this tissue begins to degenerate over time, the individual is at risk for experiencing bone spurs, slipped discs, or even a thickening of the soft tissue between vertebrae. These conditions may then lead to compressed spinal nerves, characteristic of spinal stenosis.

A small portion of spinal stenosis cases are not the result of damage or injury. These individuals suffer from a congenital condition that results in a narrowing of the spinal column. This narrowing makes it more likely that the spinal nerves will become compressed. A known risk factor for developing the congenital form of spinal stenosis includes a family history of spinal stenosis or chronic lower back pain.

Other risk factors for developing non-genetic spinal stenosis include frequently overextending the back and spine, poor posture, unbalanced alignment, being overweight, and a medical history of back injury or pain. Individuals with scoliosis or hypertension are also believed to be more at risk for developing spinal stenosis.

Some more severe cases of spinal stenosis may be related to a more serious condition, known as cauda equine syndrome. Cauda equine syndrome arises as the result of an impingement of the spinal nerves within the lower back. Individuals with spinal stenosis are encouraged to contact their doctor right away if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Sexual difficulties
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Numbness, weakness, or pain in one or both legs

Treatments For Spinal Stenosis

When assessing for the presence of spinal stenosis, your physician will want to discuss your medical history. Additionally, your physician will conduct a physical examination of the spine and legs. In particular, your physician will pay attention to the degree of mobility, stiffness within the joint, and any reports of pain or other sensations. Imaging techniques may be employed in order to assess the severity of the condition. Imaging techniques that are commonly used when diagnosing spinal stenosis include X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), myelogram, ultrasounds, computerized axial tomography (CAT), and bone scans.

For more mild cases of spinal stenosis, individuals often find that at-home or over-the-counter treatments are effective at reducing their symptoms. For instance, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can be very effective in providing pain relief. For more severe symptoms of pain, your physician may recommend temporary use of opioid medications. These drugs are more aggressive in targeting symptoms of pain, though they do carry with them risk for dependency or even overdose.

Some instances of spinal stenosis may not respond to these forms of treatment. For these refractory symptoms, your physician will probably recommend a more interventional approach to target the pain. This treatment technique targets the transmission of pain signals from the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and brain. Examples of these techniques include epidural steroid injections, adhesiolysis, and spinal cord stimulation.

Alternative treatment options are also available as additive interventions. These methods are preferred by some individuals, as they do not involve the use of medications. These interventions include yoga, dietary changes, acupuncture, or therapeutic massage.

Though rare, a small portion of spinal stenosis patients may not experience relief from any of the aforementioned treatment methods. For these cases, surgery may be the only option to provide the patient with pain relief and restore them to previous levels of daily functioning.

Conclusion

Spinal stenosis is a condition that arises as the result of compression or impingement of the spinal nerves. This compression causes the spinal nerves to become irritated and inflamed. Thus, spinal stenosis can be characterized by high degrees of pain and discomfort. The most common condition associated with spinal stenosis pain is degenerative arthritis, which arises due to the degradation of connective tissue within the spine over time. Several treatment options are available, including analgesic medications and relaxation practice. A small portion of cases may not respond to typical treatment techniques. In these instances, surgery may be the only option for providing relief from pain of spinal stenosis.

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References

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