Each of the bones, or vertebrae, that comprise your spine has a donut-like hole in the center. When your vertebrae are all stacked on top of each other, these holes line up, creating your spinal canal. The spinal canal houses the spinal cord and its nerves. When the canal narrows, giving the spinal cord and nerves less room to move, it causes irritation and inflammation, a condition called spinal stenosis. At Mount Sinai, we have extensive experience in diagnosing and treating spinal stenosis.
Spinal Stenosis Symptoms
The exact symptoms of spinal stenosis may vary depending on the precise location of the irritation and inflammation. In general, spinal stenosis causes pain in your back and legs. Other symptoms include clumsiness; pain when walking; frequent falling; and numbness, tingling, and hot or cold feeling in your legs. It can also lead to tingling in your arms or hands and even difficulties with bladder and bowel control. Symptoms often start gradually and worsen over time.
Potential Causes of Spinal Stenosis
Anything that narrows the spinal canal can lead to spinal stenosis, including excess bone growth due to osteoporosis, dislocation, or fracture; bulging or herniated discs (the cushions that separate each vertebra); and arthritis.
Some people are born with a small spinal canal, but generally, spinal stenosis results from a degenerative aging process. As we age, our spinal ligaments may thicken and calcify or our bones and joints may swell. Two forms of arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) can also wear away the surface cartilage and cause an overgrowth of the bone that narrows the spinal canal.
Diagnosing Spinal Stenosis
To diagnosis spinal stenosis, we start by taking your medical history and conducting a physical exam to assess your pain and symptoms. We also use an imaging test, such as an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or computerized tomography (CT) scan.
Spinal Stenosis Treatment
Medication is the most common form of treatment for spinal stenosis, including analgesics to relieve the pain, anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation, and muscle relaxants. We sometimes recommend limiting physical activity. We may also suggest special exercises or physical therapy to help you maintain the motion of your spine, strengthen your abdominal and back muscles, and build your endurance. A lumbar brace or corset can provide support. In addition, some people turn to complementary therapies such as chiropractic treatment or acupuncture.
We generally consider surgery only if these other methods are not effective at relieving the pain.