When your spine narrows in one or more locations, it is known as stenosis or spinal stenosis. The narrowing can occur anywhere along the spine, though it is most common in the neck and the lower back. This narrowing can put pressure on your spinal cord and cause spinal nerves to compress.
This can lead to pain or numbness in your legs, shoulders or arms; weakness of the limbs, a loss of sensation in your extremities and even bladder and bowel issues. Stenosis doesn’t always cause pain, especially if it’s in the neck.
In most cases, the symptoms will become worse over time. Initially, there will be no signs of pain. As the condition becomes worse, you may experience numbness or weakness in your appendages, there may be increasing pain in the neck or shoulder area and you could lose control of your bladder or bowel, if the condition is serious enough.
If stenosis is in the lower back, you may experience pain or cramping in your legs when you walk or stand for long periods of time. It may feel better when you sit or bend forward.
Because the symptoms can resemble those of aging, a physical exam may not be enough to diagnose stenosis. Instead, your doctor may order x-rays, an MRI or CT myelogram to assess the spine and make a proper diagnosis.
The first line of treatment is over-the-counter pain relievers to control the pain. Your doctor may also prescribe a session with a physical therapist so you can learn strength and endurance exercises that will stabilize your back and spine, improve your balance and control pain.
If the pain continues or gets worse, steroid injections may be used to reduce the inflammation of the nerve roots and relieve pressure. This is not a long-term solution, however.
If these non-surgical treatments have not improved the condition, your doctor may recommend surgery. In most cases, surgery can help improve the problem and reduce the pain. Options include a laminectomy to increase the space in the vertebrae for the spinal canal and/or fusion to maintain the strength of the spine.
Your doctor will be happy to discuss options with you, including surgical ones should they prove to be the best course of treatment for your particular case of stenosis.