back pain

Post Updated October 2021

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.

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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.

Types of Spinal Stenosis

The spine consists of bones known as vertebrae, where part of the central nervous system runs directly through from the brain to the rest of the body. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere along the spine.

There are three types of spinal stenosis, each specific to the region of the spine affected:

  • Cervical Spinal Stenosis. This type of spinal stenosis concerns the neck or upper back, specifically the seven vertebrae that form the cervical spine between the skull and the chest.
  • Thoracic Spinal Stenosis. This type of spinal stenosis, though not as typical, concerns the next 12 vertebrae along the middle of the back. Physical actions like rotation or side-to-side movements result from this region of the spine.
  • Lumbar Spinal Stenosis. The lumbar region consists of the next five vertebrae between the rib cage and the pelvis, which supports the body’s weight and allows bending and twisting.

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.

A Treatable Condition: Solutions for Spinal Stenosis

If you think you have spinal stenosis, you should contact your doctor. They 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, CT scan, or X-ray.

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 or schedule an appointment, call 1-866-987-6784 or visit our website.

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.