Spinal Stenosis is a condition in which the spinal cord or the nerve bundle at the base of the spine is compressed. This can happen for several reasons, the most common of which is osteoarthritis that causes joints and connectors to swell, putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. As such, this condition is most common in the elderly; occasionally, however, it can affect younger people who were born with an abnormally narrow spinal canal or who were injured. Age-related disc bulging and bone spur growth can also cause the problem.
There are two main types of stenosis: lumbar and cervical. The symptoms associated with each are somewhat different, according to noted surgeon Dr. James K. Kaufman, MD, and which ones you experience will help to determine the type of stenosis you have and the course of treatment you undergo.
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
This is, by far, the most common type of spinal stenosis and the less threatening. It happens when the nerve bundle at the base of the spine (the cauda equina) is pinched. For some people, this condition actually causes no symptoms and doesn’t have any affect; for others, the symptoms include tingling, numbness or pain in the lower back, buttocks, and legs and some difficulty walking. These symptoms will be noticeable, uncomfortable, and sometimes even a bit painful, but not usually disabling. Often, a distinguishing feature of this condition is that sitting or leaning forward will ease the pain.
Cervical Spinal Stenosis
Cervical spinal stenosis, on the other hand, can actually be dangerous to those who have it. This is because cervical spinal stenosis affects the upper back and, thus, the spinal cord itself. The spinal cord is what connects the brain to the nerves throughout your body, so anything damaging it can disable the basic command functions of your body. Cervical spinal stenosis can cause weakness, severe pain, paralysis, incontinence, and even loss of limb control.
While both types of stenosis develop over time, lumbar stenosis is much easier to live with, while cervical is much more likely to require hospitalization and surgery. As it happens, there is actually no cure for stenosis, though there are ways in which you can minimize your symptoms:
- Exercise – Staying active keeps your muscles strong, eases some of the symptoms, and prevents you from losing more function from inactivity. Start off easy, with exercises that emphasize leaning forward and positions that are comfortable. Try to get to a level at which activities are less uncomfortable than they used to be.
- Anti-inflammatory medications – Because the condition is often caused by osteoarthritis, a side-effect of which is swelling, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen can sometimes ease the pain. Keep in mind, however, that these medications can cause stomach problems when used regularly.
- Injections – A series of steroid injections into the area surrounding the spinal cord has been known to bring some relief, though it is often temporary.
- Surgery – This is the most drastic action that you can take when dealing with stenosis. The surgery will remove spurs and discs, and clear the area around the spinal canal of blockages and excess tissue. Like all surgeries, however, the procedure is not without risks, and should not be chosen lightly. And stenosis can recur after surgery, so choosing this option should be based on how dramatically the condition is affecting your life. For instance, if you are experiencing severe pain and your motor function is in danger, surgery may be the best option.
Spinal stenosis is no fun, but knowing more about it can help you to rule out other conditions and figure out the best course of action.