Age affects pretty much every part of the body, and while some changes can be really evident — like wrinkles and gray hair, for instance — other changes stay “hidden” until they start to cause symptoms. Spinal stenosis is a good example. In spinal stenosis, the spaces inside your spine bones (vertebrae) become narrower. Since your spine acts as a conduit or canal for all the nerves in your body, as this canal narrows, it can start to place pressure on the nerves. And that means you can wind up experiencing a whole host of symptoms, some mild and some very severe.
Spinal stenosis is much more common among people who are 50 years of age and older, and it can occur in two areas of the spine (the two areas that are most flexible): the cervical spine (the neck area of the spine) and the lumbar spine (the lower back). You may develop stenosis in either or both of these areas.
What causes spinal stenosis?
A few people develop stenosis as a result of injury to the spine, and some people are born with a very narrow spinal canal. But most people who have spinal stenosis develop it as a result of age-related changes inside the spine.
Normal wear and tear on your back increases the likelihood you’ll develop small bony growths called bone spurs. Spurs can also develop alongside spinal arthritis. These spurs grow out from the canal, decreasing the size of the canal and also pressing on your nerves. The ligaments (fibrous bands of tissue) connecting your vertebrae also tend to become thicker as you get older, and they too can press on nerves. Thickened ligaments also make your back less flexible, which can increase stenosis symptoms. And finally, the spongy discs between your vertebrae tend to lose fluid as you age, making it more likely nerves will become “pinched” and irritated.
4 main symptoms of stenosis
Depending on where stenosis is occurring (cervical spine, lumbar spine or both), you may have symptoms in your upper back and arms or your lower back, buttocks, and legs. Here are four symptoms to watch out for:
- Pain, numbness, or tingling sensations down your back, arms, or legs. When your nerves are compressed in or near your spine, you can experience pain and other sensations all the way along the pathway of the nerve. Pain can feel like a dull ache, or it may feel sharp and burning.
- Difficulty walking. Nerve compression in your spine can interfere with the signaling between your nerves and your muscles. That means it’s more difficult for your muscles to support you and to “activate” the movements of walking. Many people with spinal stenosis can walk only short distances before they become fatigued or have pain in the legs or back. These symptoms may be temporarily relieved by sitting and resting, but they’ll recur when walking again.
- Your symptoms feel better when you lean forward. When you lean forward, you widen the spaces in the lumbar spine, which means there’s more room for the nerves. Some people find they can walk longer distances when leaning on a shopping cart or walker. Leaning forward when sitting can also provide some relief, while sitting up straight for long periods of time can make symptoms worse.
- Balance problems. Because stenosis makes it more difficult to walk, many people find they’re less steady on their feet. Muscle weakness and loss of sensation in the nerves of your legs and feet interfere with the coordination needed for walking, and they can also make you feel less “sure-footed.” Some people may also have what’s known as “foot drop,” where your feet feel like they’re “slapping” the ground when you walk, or they may tend to shuffle, which increases the likelihood of tripping and falling.
Not all people will experience the same symptoms or the same degree of discomfort.
Getting treatment for spinal stenosis
Because it’s a degenerative condition, many people with spinal stenosis experience worsening symptoms as they get older. But there are treatments that can help relieve the symptoms of stenosis. At Douglas J. Abeles M.D. and Associates, treatment begins conservatively with medication and therapy when appropriate. When these options aren’t effective, minimally invasive surgery may be recommended to relieve nerve compression so you can feel more comfortable. If you have symptoms of spinal stenosis, getting treatment as early as possible is important for preventing your symptoms from getting worse. Get the relief you need for your back symptoms. Book an appointment online today.