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What is Spinal Stenosis?

Back and Leg Pain
Woman with Lower Back and Leg Pain

When the spaces in the spine start to narrow pressure is applied to the spinal cord and nerves in the spinal canal. This condition is referred to as spinal stenosis. In most instances, the lower back or neck region are the areas affected by the narrowing of the spine. Symptoms can range from very mild to severe complications. Many individuals do not experience any noticeable symptoms but others may have pain, numbness, muscle weakness, or problems with bowel or bladder function problems. Spinal stenosis is commonly attributed to aging or regular wear and tear that occur over time.

What are some of the symptoms associated with spinal stenosis?

One of the most common symptoms for those who experience them is pain in the lower back and legs. Occasionally the narrowing caused by spinal stenosis can pinch nerves that control sensation in the legs as well as muscle power which can yield adverse or uncomfortable symptoms. Some of those who suffer with the condition may experience an unusual clumsiness or frequent falls; and some will have difficulty walking. Some patients describe a feeling like their legs going numb; or they may feel cold or hot. Symptoms generally appear slowly over time and do not usually just suddenly occur. For most individuals the pain becomes more intense the longer they remain in a standing position. Some people experience spinal stenosis in the neck region and for these patients the weakness or numbness is in the hands or arms. In very rare, but severe cases nerves to the bladder or bowels are affected. This can cause much discomfort as well as leading to incontinence.

What are the common causes of spinal stenosis?

One of the most common causes of spinal stenosis is aging. As the body ages the ligaments can begin to thicken which may eventually cause bones to develop spurs.  The discs which are located between the vertebrae to provide cushioning may begin to deteriorate along with the facet joints. Any of these situations can lead to the narrowing of the spinal canal. Some forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis can affect the spine. Heredity can also be a contributing factor and determine one’s susceptibility to spinal stenosis and the diseases that commonly cause it. Occasionally a baby will have an unusually small spinal canal which means that they are likely to exhibit symptoms of spinal stenosis at a very early age. And there are a few individuals who have structural deformities of the spine which causes narrowness of the spinal canal.

Abnormal growths such as tumors can take up space in the spinal canal. As the tumor grows it can cause the supporting framework in the structure of the spine. This can eventually cause a major collapse. The growing tumor can indirectly cause bone loss in the spinal area because some of the bone cells that become overactive in defense. There are occasions in which the spine becomes dislocated or fractured and bone fragments can become lodged in the spinal area. IF the fragments can penetrate the spinal canal there can be major damage and extreme pain.

How is spinal stenosis diagnosed?

It can be difficult to diagnose spinal stenosis since some of the most common symptoms can appear to be related to one’s age. The physician will likely order imaging tests in order to make a proper diagnosis. An x-ray is usually conducted although it will not be able to diagnose spinal stenosis; it will however rule out many other common conditions with very similar symptoms. A doctor will typically order an MRI which will lead to a correct diagnosis since it can produce cross-sectional images of the spinal region and will be able to detect any damage that has occurred to the ligaments and discs in the spine.

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