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What is Spinal Stenosis?

By J.Gunsch
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Spinal stenosis is a painful degenerative condition of the spine that effects the nerves and spinal cord. In people who have this condition, the vertebrae and cartilage of the backbone narrow in on the spinal canal, the hollow area of the spinal column that encases the spinal cord. This eventually begins to compress the spinal cord and the nerves that branch out from it. This condition often begins in adulthood but does not produce any symptoms until later in life, usually around the age of 50 years or above.

In most cases, this problem is caused by aging. As people grow older, their ligaments begin to stretch, bone mass decreases, and swelling occurs, all of which can effect the structure of the spine. Scoliosis, which denotes a curvature of the spine, can compromise the spinal canal and cause stenosis. It may also be caused by the genetic inheritance of a narrow canal or a defect in bone formation.

The symptoms of spinal stenosis vary according to the severity of the spine's degeneration. Most often, a person suffering from this condition experiences excruciating pain while walking that subsides when he or she sits down. This pain is caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve, which is felt as a shooting pain down one or both legs. The person also may have numbing or tingling sensations.

Spinal stenosis that occurs in the upper parts of the back can cause severe pain in the arms as well as the legs. Very severe cases may have symptoms affecting many areas of the body, such as the bladder and chest. Symptoms are not always constant; they can come and go, lasting for indefinite periods of time.

Treatments also vary depending on how serious a person's condition is, mostly gauged by the amount of pain that they experience. For mild pain, over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen may be sufficient. For more serious cases, prescription pain killers and steroid injections often bring relief. When these methods prove ineffective, spinal surgery is an option.

Surgery for this condition does carry risks, but in some cases, a sufferer may ultimately become confined to a wheelchair if it is not preformed. It can cause blood clots, infection and, rarely, paralysis. Because spinal stenosis usually affects the elderly, the age factor alone can complicate surgery and increase its risks. Nonetheless, a person who is in severe pain and has a poor quality of life as a result can most benefit from the relief that surgery can often provide.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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