Spinal stenosis is a term used to describe the narrowing, or constriction, of the nerve passageways within the spine. Two types of passages, in particular, may be involved when stenosis is diagnosed: the intervertebral foramina and the spinal canal itself. The foramina are located on either side of individual vertebrae and are the passageways for nerve roots to and from the spinal cord. Narrowing with the foramina is known as foraminal stenosis. The spinal canal extends from the base of the skull to the lower-mid back, where the thoracic region transitions to the lumbar (lower back) region. Either of these passages can become constricted as a result of a traumatic injury or an age-related degenerative spine condition.
Causes of Spinal Stenosis
The conditions that cause spinal narrowing normally develop gradually, and can be exacerbated by such things as habitual poor posture, prolonged overuse or incorrect use of the back muscles, or traumatic injury. Osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease are two of the most frequently diagnosed causes of spinal stenosis, and while either can affect the spine at any level, they are most often found in the lower back. Conditions that can lead to spinal narrowing include:
- Spondylolisthesis (vertebral slippage)
- Herniated discs
- Bulging discs
- Thickening of the spinal ligaments
- Osteophytes (bone spurs)
Spinal stenosis is not necessarily symptomatic. However, if the spinal cord or a nerve root becomes irritated or compressed because there is less space within the opening where it resides, it can produce pain, tingling, numbness, or muscle weakness in the extremities.
Treating Spinal Stenosis Symptoms
If stenosis does produce symptoms, they usually can be managed with a combination of anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise, stretching, behavior modification training, and other conservative treatment methods. The treatment or treatments prescribed will depend on a number of factors, including the overall health of the patient, the location of the spinal narrowing, and the underlying cause. Surgery typically becomes an option only if conservative treatment proves ineffective after several weeks or months.