Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces within your spine, which can put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine. Spinal stenosis occurs most often in the lower back and the neck.
Some people with spinal stenosis may not have symptoms. Others may experience pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness. Symptoms can worsen over time.
Spinal stenosis is most commonly caused by wear-and-tear changes in the spine related to osteoarthritis. In severe cases of spinal stenosis, doctors may recommend surgery to create additional space for the spinal cord or nerves.
The types of spinal stenosis are classified according to where on the spine the condition occurs. It's possible to have more than one type. The two main types of spinal stenosis are:
Spinal stenosis occurs when the space within the spinal canal or around the nerve roots becomes narrowed.
Spinal stenosis can occur at one level or multiples levels at the same time.
Many people have evidence of spinal stenosis on an MRI or CT scan but may not have symptoms. When they do occur, they often start gradually and worsen over time. Symptoms vary depending on the location of the stenosis and which nerves are affected.
See your doctor if you have any of the symptoms listed.
The backbone (spine) runs from your neck to your lower back. The bones of your spine form a spinal canal, which protects your spinal cord (nerves).
Some people are born with a small spinal canal. But most spinal stenosis occurs when something happens to narrow the open space within the spine. Causes of spinal stenosis may include:
As your spine ages, it's more likely to experience bone spurs or herniated disks. These problems can reduce the amount of space available for your spinal cord and the nerves that branch off it.
Most people with spinal stenosis are over the age of 50. Though degenerative changes can cause spinal stenosis in younger people, other causes need to be considered. These include trauma, congenital spinal deformity such as scoliosis, and a genetic disease affecting bone and muscle development throughout the body. Spinal imaging can differentiate these causes.
Rarely, untreated severe spinal stenosis may progress and cause permanent:
To diagnose spinal stenosis, your doctor may ask you about signs and symptoms, discuss your medical history, and conduct a physical examination. He or she may order several imaging tests to help pinpoint the cause of your signs and symptoms.
These tests may include:
Treatment for spinal stenosis depends on the location of the stenosis and the severity of your signs and symptoms.
Talk to your doctor about the treatment that's best for your situation. If your symptoms are mild or you aren't experiencing any, your doctor may monitor your condition with regular follow-up appointments. He or she may offer some self-care tips that you can do at home. If these don't help, he or she may recommend medications or physical therapy. Surgery may be an option if other treatments haven't helped.
Your doctor may prescribe:
It's common for people who have spinal stenosis to become less active, in an effort to reduce pain. But that can lead to muscle weakness, which can result in more pain. A physical therapist can teach you exercises that may help:
Your nerve roots may become irritated and swollen at the spots where they are being pinched. While injecting a steroid medication (corticosteroid) into the space around impingement won't fix the stenosis, it can help reduce the inflammation and relieve some of the pain.
Steroid injections don't work for everyone. And repeated steroid injections can weaken nearby bones and connective tissue, so you can only get these injections a few times a year.
With this procedure, needle-like instruments are used to remove a portion of a thickened ligament in the back of the spinal column to increase spinal canal space and remove nerve root impingement. Only patients with lumbar spinal stenosis and a thickened ligament are eligible for this type of decompression.
The procedure is called percutaneous image-guided lumbar decompression (PILD). It has also been called minimally invasive lumbar decompression (MILD), but to avoid confusion with minimally invasive surgical procedures, doctors have adopted the term PILD.
Because PILD is performed without general anesthesia, it may be an option for some people with high surgical risks from other medical problems.
Surgery may be considered if other treatments haven't helped or if you're disabled by your symptoms. The goals of surgery include relieving the pressure on your spinal cord or nerve roots by creating more space within the spinal canal. Surgery to decompress the area of stenosis is the most definitive way to try to resolve symptoms of spinal stenosis.
Research shows that spine surgeries result in fewer complications when done by highly experienced surgeons. Don't hesitate to ask about your surgeon's experience with spinal stenosis surgery. If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.
Examples of surgical procedures to treat spinal stenosis include:
Laminectomy. This procedure removes the back part (lamina) of the affected vertebra. A laminectomy is sometimes called decompression surgery because it eases the pressure on the nerves by creating more space around them.
In some cases, that vertebra may need to be linked to adjoining vertebrae with metal hardware and a bone graft (spinal fusion) to maintain the spine's strength.
Minimally invasive surgery. This approach to surgery removes bone or lamina in a way that reduces the damage to nearby healthy tissue. This results in less need to do fusions.
While fusions are a useful way to stabilize the spine and reduce pain, by avoiding them you can reduce potential risks, such as post-surgical pain and inflammation and disease in nearby sections of the spine. In addition to reducing the need for spinal fusion, a minimally invasive approach to surgery has been shown to result in a shorter recovery time.
In most cases, these space-creating operations help reduce spinal stenosis symptoms. But some people's symptoms stay the same or get worse after surgery. Other surgical risks include infection, a tear in the membrane that covers the spinal cord, a blood clot in a leg vein and neurological deterioration.
Clinical trials are underway to test the use of stem cells to treat degenerative spinal disease, an approach sometimes called regenerative medicine. Genomic medicine trials are also being done, which could result in new gene therapies for spinal stenosis.
Integrative medicine and alternative therapies may be used with conventional treatments to help you cope with spinal stenosis pain. Examples include:
Talk with your doctor if you're interested in these treatment options.
A lumbar laminectomy involves the removal of the back portion of a vertebra in your lower back to create more room within the spinal canal.
A cervical laminectomy involves the removal of the back portion of a vertebra in your neck to create more room within the spinal canal.
A laminotomy removes only a portion of the lamina, typically carving a hole just big enough to relieve the pressure in a particular spot. While shown here on the neck, it can also be performed in the lumbar spine.
Laminoplasty is performed only on the vertebrae in the neck (cervical spine). It opens up the space within the spinal canal by creating a hinge on the lamina. Metal hardware bridges the gap in the opened section of the spine.
You'll have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor to monitor your condition. He or she may suggest that you incorporate several home treatments into your life, including:
If your primary care doctor thinks you have spinal stenosis, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the nervous system (neurologist). Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may also need to see a spinal surgeon (neurosurgeon, orthopedic surgeon).
Before the appointment, you might want to prepare a list of answers to the following questions:
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions: