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What Is Spinal Stenosis? Causes, Symptoms, and More


WRITTEN BY: Spine Health
Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Your spine is central to good health. With more than 30 interlocking bones (vertebrae), the spine provides the main support for your body, allows you to bend and twist, and protects your spinal cord.

When its structure changes, however, you can experience pain, numbness, tingling, and other symptoms — a condition known as spinal stenosis.

A Painful Problem: Causes of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis occurs when something causes the open spaces in the spinal column to narrow. According to Mark Fye, MD, spine surgeon at Orthopaedic Specialists – UPMC, the most common cause of spinal stenosis is the wear and tear caused by osteoarthritis, which can create bone spurs that grow into the spinal canal.

Less commonly, spinal stenosis can be caused by thickened ligaments, a herniated disc, an injury, or a tumor. Because the odds of developing osteoarthritis increase with age, you’re at higher risk for developing spinal stenosis if you’re older than age 50.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

When the space inside the spinal column becomes narrower, it can put pressure on the spinal cord and nearby nerves. This can result in a variety of unpleasant symptoms, depending on which area of the spine is affected. Spinal stenosis symptoms may include:

  • Numbness, weakness, cramping, or pain in the legs or thighs
  • Numbness or tingling in the arm or hand
  • Pain that radiates down the leg
  • Decreased sensation in the feet that makes it difficult to walk
  • Abnormal bowel or bladder function
  • Loss of sexual function
  • Partial or complete paralysis of the legs

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A Treatable Condition: Solutions for Spinal Stenosis

If you think you have spinal stenosis, you should contact your doctor. He or she will likely perform a neurological exam to confirm weakness and decreased sensation in your limbs. You may also be given diagnostic tests such as an MRI or CT scan or X-rays.

Spinal stenosis is treatable, and most doctors try non-surgical approaches first. These can include:

  • Pain relievers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (including ibuprofen and naproxen)
  • Antidepressants or anti-seizure drugs, which can help relieve nerve pain
  • Prescription analgesics such as opioids
  • Cortisone injections to reduce inflammation and pressure
  • Physical therapy

If such measures don’t help, your doctor may recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. Surgical procedures used to treat spinal stenosis include:

  • Decompression laminectomy, which removes bony spurs or increased bone mass in the spinal canal, freeing up space for the nerves and spinal cord
  • Spinal fusion, a technique in which two vertebrae are fused together. This provides stronger support for the spine, and is almost always done after decompression laminectomy

Your doctor can tell you more about these and other treatments for spinal stenosis. To learn more about spinal stenosis, visit the UPMC Orthopaedic Care website.