Spinal Stenosis: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment


Have you been experiencing back pain, numbness, or weakness in your legs? You may be suffering from spinal stenosis, a condition that affects the spine and, if untreated, can cause significant discomfort and limitations in daily life.

Spinal stenosis isn't just about the ache radiating down your spine; it's about freedom stolen from simple pleasures—strolling through the park or playing catch with your kids. The everyday joys become daunting tasks because spinal stenosis has set up camp in the narrow confines of your spinal canal.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for spinal stenosis is essential for managing this condition effectively. By gaining knowledge about this condition, you can seek appropriate medical help and make informed decisions about your treatment plan. In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for spinal stenosis, helping you to better understand and navigate this condition.

Understanding Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis, a commonly encountered spine issue, is often not fully comprehended. It's crucial to have accurate information to navigate your healthcare journey effectively.

Congenital vs Acquired Spinal Stenosis

The narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress your nerves and spine, is referred to as spinal stenosis. This problem occurs in two primary forms: congenital and acquired.

Congenital spinal stenosis is present at birth due to an unusually narrow spinal canal. On the other hand, acquired spinal stenosis develops later in life because of various factors like aging or injury that cause changes in the spine, such as bone spur growths leading to a narrow spinal passage.

Common Risk Factors for Spinal Stenosis

Beyond being born with it (congenital), several risk factors are associated with developing this condition. 

Aging tops the list since the spine changes over time, leading to narrowing (stenosis). Conditions like osteoarthritis can also contribute as they cause bone growths or spurs that may intrude into the spinal canal. Finally, injuries from accidents or falls could lead to spinal stenosis if they result in swelling of nearby tissue that pushes on the spinal cord.

No matter your risk factors, understanding and managing them will be key in dealing with this condition.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

Having spinal stenosis can be a nuisance, and not just figuratively. The discomfort extends to other parts, too, like your back and legs. This is because of the pressure placed on the nerves from the spinal compression.

How Does Spinal Stenosis Pain Feel?

The pain associated with spinal stenosis, often described as a dull ache or sometimes even sharp shooting pains, can manifest anywhere along your spine. But it's more commonly felt in the lower back (lumbar) area. Patients also report feeling weakness in their legs or arms, which is coupled with numbness and cramping.

Individuals dealing with lumbar spinal stenosis may find relief from bending forward at the waist (as you would when pushing a shopping cart). Commonly known as the ‘shopping cart sign,’ this is a key indicator that you may be suffering from spinal stenosis.

Loss of Bowel or Bladder Control

In severe cases, loss of bowel or bladder control can occur due to nerve damage caused by compression in severe instances of lumbar spinal stenosis.

If you develop incontinence and rapid or profound weakness in the legs or arms, seek immediate medical assistance, as this is an emergency and needs to be managed right away.

Key Takeaway: 
Spinal stenosis leads to pain and discomfort in the back and legs, accompanied by weakness, numbness, and cramping. Severe cases may result in loss of bowel or bladder control, necessitating immediate medical intervention.

Diagnosing Spinal Stenosis

Your healthcare provider might suspect spinal stenosis if you're experiencing symptoms like a dull ache in your back or leg. The process to diagnose this condition often starts with a physical exam and a review of your medical history.

Your healthcare provider may inquire about the kind of discomfort you're feeling, its location and any other related symptoms. They'll also check for signs of nerve root compression by testing reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation in affected areas.

Role of Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Diagnosis

MRI is essential for diagnosing spinal stenosis, as it allows doctors to visualize the soft tissues around the spine, such as discs and nerves, revealing any pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots from bone spurs or thickened ligaments within the spinal canal. 

An MRI helps confirm a diagnosis and provides information about what's causing stenosis—aging changes, bone growths, or herniated discs—and which segments are involved.

In some cases where an MRI isn't possible due to factors such as implanted metal devices or severe claustrophobia, a computed tomography (CT scan) is another type of imaging test that may be used instead.

While imaging tests play a pivotal role, your healthcare provider will also consider your symptoms and clinical examination findings to make a diagnosis. Remember that being proactive about getting help when you start experiencing symptoms can lead to early detection and more effective treatment options.

Key Takeaway: 
MRI plays a vital role in determining the cause of - and the areas affected by - spinal stenosis. If an MRI can't be done, a CT scan is another option. 

Understanding the Severity of Spinal Stenosis

The severity of spinal stenosis varies, ranging from mild to severe. It can impact your daily life in different ways.

Mild Spinal Stenosis

In the case of mild spinal stenosis, you might not even know you have it because symptoms are often absent or minimal. If they do show up, they're usually manageable with over-the-counter medications and gentle exercise.

Physical therapy can also be effective for relief and help improve balance, which is crucial for overall wellness. This non-invasive approach is preferred by many before considering more drastic measures like surgery.

Moderate Spinal Stenosis

As the condition progresses into moderate spinal stenosis, so does the discomfort. You may experience a dull ache in your back or neck pain that radiates down your leg or arm.

This happens due to increased pressure on nerve roots within the narrowed sections of your spinal canal caused by thickened ligaments, bone growths, or spurs on vertebrae edges which lead to nerve compression. More intense physical therapy sessions, along with steroid injections, could help relieve this type of pain.

Severe Spinal Stenosis

 If left untreated, severe spinal stenosis may sneak up on you, causing extreme discomfort and affecting day-to-day activities significantly.

Advanced stages could lead to nerve damage, leading to loss of sensation or movement in extremities. The pressure could also cause problems with bladder and bowel control.

In such cases, surgery might be the best course of action. Spinal fusion is one option where metal plates are used for spine stability after removing problematic areas; however, this procedure involves risks that need thorough consideration before deciding on it as a solution.

Treatment Options for Spinal Stenosis

Living with a spinal stenosis diagnosis does not necessarily equate to having perpetual pain. Let's explore the various treatments that can help you reclaim your active lifestyle.

Nonsurgical Treatments

When dealing with mild to moderate cases, nonsurgical treatment options often come first. Regular physical therapy is a cornerstone in managing symptoms and improving overall mobility.

An exercise program designed by skilled physical therapists will likely focus on strengthening abdominal muscles, enhancing flexibility, and improving balance - all crucial factors for spine stability.

Besides therapy, doctors may suggest steroid injections to reduce inflammation around nerve roots or nerves in the spinal canal which could relieve pain temporarily.

Surgery as an Option

If nonsurgical treatments don’t provide enough relief, surgery might be necessary. The goal is to enhance your quality of life significantly, not just resolve the problem. 

Laminoplasty involves surgically removing bone spurs, causing nerve compression within the narrow lumbar vertebrae. This procedure can give immediate respite from severe neck pain or leg foot numbness associated with advanced stages of this condition.

Remember, the treatment that works best will depend on your specific condition and medical history. Always consult with a healthcare provider to discuss what options are right for you.

Treat Your Spinal Stenosis at Western Reserve Hospital

You don’t have to suffer from spinal stenosis. At the Center for Pain Medicine at Western Reserve Hospital, we provide the latest innovations in pain treatment. 

When chronic pain sets in, your life shrinks to fit your pain. Your health, work, and relationships suffer. You become less present in your daily activities. Often, you cannot sleep or suffer from depression. 

Living with chronic pain is hard, and the anxiety, stress, and anger that accompany it can make the pain even worse. The pain specialists at the Center for Pain Medicine at Western Reserve Hospital can help you conquer your pain with sophisticated new treatments and compassionate, professional care. Contact us at (330) 971-7246​ to schedule an appointment and begin the journey to pain relief today.

FAQs About Spinal Stenosis

What is the best thing to do for spinal stenosis?
Treating spinal stenosis usually involves lifestyle changes, physical therapy, and medication. Surgery may be needed in severe cases.

How serious is spinal stenosis?
Spinal stenosis can range from mild discomfort to debilitating pain or numbness. In rare cases, it might lead to paralysis.

What are the worst symptoms of spinal stenosis?
The worst symptoms include intense pain, weakness in limbs, balance problems, and loss of bladder or bowel control. If you develop these symptoms, seek immediate medical assistance as this may indicate an emergency.