Bounded by the vertebrae of the spine is a narrow space called the spinal canal, a cavity that continues through each of the vertebrae and encloses the spinal cord. Over time, this canal narrows further, as bones and tissue grow around it. This lessening of the open spaces in the spine referred to as “canal stenosis” or “spinal stenosis” squeezes the nerves that travel through the spine to your arms and legs. This narrowing causes pain and discomfort. The nerves become more irritated as the diameter of the canal becomes thinner, leading to more back pain, leg pain, and weakness.
What Causes Canal Stenosis?
The bones and tissues that thicken around the spinal canal as we age contribute to the narrowing that leads to stenosis. Trauma from falls and accidents can either dislocate the spine or cause burst fractures that penetrate the canal with fragments of bone. Heredity can play a role as well. Symptoms of spinal stenosis can occur in a relatively young person if the spinal canal is too small at birth or other structural deformities of the vertebrae cause a narrowing of the spinal canal. When one vertebra slips forward because of an instability of the spine, that can cause the spinal canal to narrow as well. Osteoarthritis can cause the spine’s joints to become inflamed and crowd the space around the spinal cord. Herniated or bulging discs may leak disc tissue into the spinal canal, causing stenosis. Bone spurs can form and encroach on the spinal canal. Tumors of the spine may affect the spinal canal directly by causing inflammation or tissue growth into the canal. Most often it is the continuous wear and tear on the spine’s bones and joints that can lead to spinal stenosis.
Symptoms and Treatment of Canal Stenosis
Although some patients experience no symptoms, pain in the neck, back, numbness, tingling, weakness and radiating pain are the most common symptoms, which usually worsens when walking or standing and may decrease when lying down, sitting, or leaning forward slightly. Stenosis can pinch the nerves that control muscle power and leg sensation. Because of this symptoms may include frequent falling, pain when walking, or numbness and tingling in the legs. Depending on the exact position of the stenosis, symptoms are felt in the neck, upper back, arms, lower back, hips or legs. Patients with spinal stenosis in the neck region experience weakness, numbness, and pain in the head, upper back, shoulders, and arms. Patients with stenosis in the middle of the back feel pain in the back, ribs, internal organs or abdomen. Lower back stenosis patients feel pain in the lower back, hips, buttocks, legs, and feet.
Non-surgical treatments are typically used to treat canal stenosis. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and NSAIDs are consistently used to address the pain caused. Physical therapy that includes stretching and exercise, while unable to permanently reverse canal stenosis, can keep the spine moving to make sure it stays as healthy and flexible as possible. Strengthening the muscles of the back and keeping the spine flexible is essential for spinal health. Using hot and cold therapy on your neck or back for 20 minutes at a time can help address the inflammation and pain that accompanies canal stenosis.
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