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Stenosis of the Spine--The Basics of Spinal Stenosis

Updated on February 12, 2010

Stenosis of the spine is a condition that results from the narrowing of the spine. Oftentimes, spinal stenosis can be a debilitating condition that causes pain, decreased quality of life, weakness, and increased medical costs.  If you are new to spinal stenosis, or have been recently diagnosed, continue reading to learn the anatomy of your spine, how spinal stenosis occurs, as well as the  symptoms, diagnoses, and available treatments.

Understanding the Spine and Spinal Stenosis

There are 33 vertebrae that make up the human spine. The spinal canal is where the spine runs through the vertebrae, and the lower part of the spine has the nerves that supply feeling and strength to the lower body. The spine is divided into three basic sections:

  • Cervical--First 6 vertebrae in the neck region
  • Thoracic--Middle 12 vertebrae in the upper and mid-back region
  • Lumbar-- Last 5 vertebrae in the lower back region.

In between the vertebrae are the spinal facet joints and intervertebral discs made of cartilage. These discs allows slight movement of the spine and hold the vertebrae together.

Stenosis of the spine begins when the discs start to wear down and loses fluid. The degeneration of the discs creates an abnormal motion of the spine; the spine tries to compensate by generating bone spurs and thickened ligaments. These changes lead to the narrowing of the spinal canal, which is in fact spinal stenosis.

Spinal canal stenosis can affect any part of the spine, but is the common in the cervical and lumbar regions.

This is a vertebra with a normal canal. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of this canal.
This is a vertebra with a normal canal. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of this canal.

Stenosis of the Spine Causes

There are several possible causes of spinal canal stenosis. Stenosis of the spine can begin as early as birth, especially if an individual is genetically pre-disposed to the condition.

Other causes include poor body mechanics, postures, obesity, smoking, poor diet, and physical trama. Some diseases may also lead to spinal stenosis, such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, scolosis and lordosis

Usually, spinal stenosis occurs with age as the vertebrae gradually softens.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

Spine stenosis does not always cause noticeable symptoms.  As a matter of fact, some people may have severe spinal stenosis on x-ray imaging, but fail to have symptoms.
If symptoms are present, they may include nerve compression which leads to pain and numbness in the back and/or legs, or leg cramping.  Usually the pain or cramping is relieved with bending or sitting.  Weakness of the legs may also occur.  In rare instances, spinal stenosis may also cause bowel and bladder issues.

Symptoms tend to worsen with prolonged standing or walking. Symptoms in severity, and are known to come and go.

If spinal stenosis affects the neck or cervical area, headaches, pain, and weakness of the arms and hands and upper extremities may occur. 

Diagnoses and Treatments for Stenosis of the Spine

In order to diagnose spinal stenosis, a physician takes a patient's medical history and perform a physical exam.  He may then order an x-ray to reveal any evidence of narrowed discs or thickening of the joint.  An MRI or CAT scan may also be used for improved detailed evaluation.

When the physician determines that an individual has lumbar spinal stenosis, he will usually try nonsurgical treatments first.  These treatments may include:

  • Oral or injected anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling
  • Analgesic medications to reduce pain
  • Non-prescription medications including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen
  • Spinal injections of epidural/cortisone
  • Physical therapy and exercise to increase strength, endurance, and flexibility

Prevention of Lumbar Spine Stenosis

If stenosis of the spine is a result of genetic predisposition, there may be little you can do to avoid it. However, there are a few steps anyone can take to reduce the chances of suffering from spinal stenois:

  • Maintain good posture
  • Bend the knees while lifting
  • Regularly stretch the back to remain flexibility
  • Sleep on a firm mattress
  • Remain physically active, especially with age.

Comments about spinal stenosis

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      Marilyn francis 

      15 months ago

      When is surgery reqùìred


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