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What is spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a painful condition that is caused by narrowing of the spine.

Spinal stenosis can cause pain in the hips and back. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Spinal stenosis can cause pain in the hips and back.

Often afflicting people over the age of 50, spinal stenosis is caused by a narrowing in one or more areas in the spine. This narrowing can occur anywhere in the center of the spine, in the branching canals of the spine, or between the vertebrae of the spine. The narrowing puts pressure on the nerves and spinal cord that run through the spine, causing pain and other symptoms.

Spinal stenosis is commonly caused by bone damage resulting from osteoarthritis. Besides age, the risk for spinal stenosis increases in people with skeletal fluorosis, a bone disease caused by the presence of high levels of fluoride in the body.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis does not always produce signs and symptoms, or does so only gradually or intermittently. Some common signs and symptoms of spinal stenosis are:

• Pain, cramping, numbness in the neck and shoulders
• Pain, cramping, numbness or weakness in the arms
• Pain, numbness or weakness in the legs, particularly when standing
• Foot problems
• Radiating hip and back pain, sometimes accompanied by numbness, weakness, or tingling in the leg or foot
• Loss of sensation in the extremities
• Occasional problems with bowel or bladder function
• Loss of balance

One hallmark of spinal stenosis is leg pain that worsens when walking and improves when sitting or bending forward.

Although it may be tempting to live with the signs and symptoms of spinal stenosis, believing them to be the normal "aches and pains" of aging, it's important to seek medical help, especially if bowel or bladder problems are present. Any pain that impedes daily functioning should be examined by a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Especially if left undiagnosed and untreated, spinal stenosis may cause degenerative changes, such as muscle atrophy, which may be permanent.

Spinal Stenosis Treatment

Because the signs and symptoms of spinal stenosis are gradual, intermittent or similar to signs of aging, spinal stenosis is difficult to diagnose. Once all other possibilities are ruled out and the diagnosis is made, treatments methods for spinal stenosis may include:

• Nonprescription medication, including anti-inflammatory pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen or indomethacin (Indocin), analgesics such as acetaminophen, and osteoarthritis supplements such as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine
• Physical therapy to help build and maintain strength, endurance, flexibility, and stability of the spine
• Use of supportive braces or corsets
• Epidural steroid injections to suppress inflammation
• Possible surgery (if severe complications, such as acute loss of bladder and bowel function, are present)

While age-related spinal changes that cause conditions like spinal stenosis are hard to avoid, there are preventative measures that can be taken. Exercising regularly can help build strength, flexibility, endurance, stability, as well as maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight can place additional stress on joints and bones.

Good body mechanics are essential to spine health, and people at risk for spinal stenosis should focus on proper posture when standing, sitting, lifting heavy objects and sleeping. Ergonomic chairs and other supports can help protect the spine, while a firm mattress and pillows with gentle neck support can ensure proper sleeping positions.

Spinal stenosis can be an uncomfortable condition, but with proper treatment most people can learn to live with this condition. Anybody experiencing symptoms of spinal stenosis should see a doctor as soon as possible.

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