SPINAL STENOSIS

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, which places pressure on the spinal cord. If the stenosis is located on the lower part of the spinal cord it is called lumbar spinal stenosis. Stenosis in the upper part of the spinal cord is called cervical spinal stenosis. While spinal stenosis can be found in any part of the spine, the lumbar and cervical areas are the most commonly affected.

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?

Some patients are born with this narrowing, but most often spinal stenosis is seen in patients over the age of 50. In these patients, stenosis is the gradual result of aging and “wear and tear” on the spine during everyday activities. There most likely is a genetic predisposition to this since only a minority of individuals develops advanced symptomatic changes. As people age, the ligaments of the spine can thicken and harden (called calcification). Bones and joints may also enlarge, and bone spurs (called osteophytes) may form. Bulging or herniated discs are also common. Spondylolisthesis (the slipping of one vertebra onto another) also occurs and leads to compression. When these conditions occur in the spinal area, they can cause the spinal canal to narrow, creating pressure on the spinal nerve.

Symptoms of Stenosis

The narrowing of the spinal canal itself does not usually cause any symptoms. It is when inflammation of the nerves occurs at the level of increased pressure that patients begin to experience problems. Patients with lumbar spinal stenosis may feel pain, weakness, or numbness in the legs, calves or buttocks. In the lumbar spine, symptoms often increase when walking short distances and decrease when the patient sits, bends forward or lies down. Cervical spinal stenosis may cause similar symptoms in the shoulders, arms, and legs; hand clumsiness and gait and balance disturbances can also occur. In some patients the pain starts in the legs and moves upward to the buttocks; in other patients the pain begins higher in the body and moves downward. This is referred to as a “sensory march”. The pain may radiate like sciatica or may be a cramping pain. In severe cases, the pain can be constant. Severe cases of stenosis can also cause bladder and bowel problems, but this rarely occurs. Also paraplegia or significant loss of function also rarely, if ever, occurs.

How Stenosis is Diagnosed

Before making a diagnosis of stenosis, it is important for the doctor to rule out other conditions that may have similar symptoms. In order to do this, most doctors use a combination of tools, including:

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History: The doctor will begin by asking the patient to describe any symptoms he or she is having and how the symptoms have changed over time. The doctor will also need to know how the patient has been treating these symptoms including what medications the patient has tried.

Physical Examination: The doctor will then examine the patient by checking for any limitations of movement in the spine, problems with balance and signs of pain. The doctor will also look for any loss of extremity reflexes, muscle weakness, sensory loss, or abnormal reflexes which may suggest spinal cord involvement.

Tests: After examining the patient, the doctor can use a variety of tests to look at the inside of the body. Examples of these tests include:

X-rays - these tests can show the structure of the vertebrae and the outlines of joints and can detect calcification.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) - this test gives a three-dimensional view of parts of the back and can show the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding spaces, as well as enlargement, degeneration, tumors or infection.

Computerized axial tomography (CAT scan) - this test shows the shape and size of the spinal canal, its contents and structures surrounding it. It shows bone better than nerve tissue.

Myelogram - a liquid dye is injected into the spinal column and appears white against bone on an x-ray film. A myelogram can show pressure on the spinal cord or nerves from herniated discs, bone spurs or tumors.

Bone scan - This test uses injected radioactive material that attaches itself to bone. A bone scan can detect fractures, tumors, infections, and arthritis, but may not tell one disorder from another. Therefore, a bone scan is usually performed along with other tests.

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Sciatica Causes

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Neck Pain

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Ruptured Disc

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Lumbar Spondylosis

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Degenerative Disc Disease

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Osteoarthritis

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Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

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Spinal Stenosis Animation Video

 

Spinal Stenosis Video Transcript

A person's spinal column consists of 33 vertebrae. These stacked vertebrae form a canal that protects the delicate spinal cord.

Sometimes, the canal, which holds the spinal cord, becomes narrowed. This narrowing is called stenosis. Oftentimes, this narrowing causes the spinal cord and its many nerve roots to become pinched. The result is usually pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, or a heavy feeling in the leg.

Several methods may be used to diagnose a spinal stenosis. These methods include the use of an MRI, a CAT scan, or a myelography. Once a proper diagnosis is made treatment may be prescribed.

Common treatments include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, rest, changes in posture, and sometimes weight loss.

 

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