Canal Stenosis – What It Is and What You Can Do

For many people, a diagnosis of canal stenosis can be both alarming and intimidating. However, even though this relatively common condition cannot be reversed, it’s important to understand that it is not always painful or debilitating. In fact, some people are completely unaware that they have canal stenosis. Sometimes, the condition becomes apparent only after an imaging study is performed for a completely unrelated reason.

What is canal stenosis?

Canal stenosis is a narrowing of the space within the spinal canal, a hollow tunnel that houses the spinal cord and nerve roots that branch off to the rest of the body. Usually, this narrowing occurs gradually over time as part of the natural aging process, which causes the spine, and other parts of the body, to slowly degenerate.

The spinal canal can become narrower in a number of ways. For instance, it may become constricted by:

  • Bone spurs. In response to spinal damage, the body may produce bony deposits on the affected spinal vertebrae as a way to help reinforce and protect the weakened bones. While bone spurs alone are not a problem, they can take up space within the spinal canal.
  • Herniated discs. The soft, shock-absorbing cushions that separate the vertebrae naturally become drier with age, making them more susceptible to cracks and tears. A breach in the exterior border of a disc can allow some of its inner, gel-like material to seep out into the spinal canal.
  • Thickened ligaments. These tough cords, which provide structural support to the spine, can become inflamed with repeated use. Thickened ligaments can sometimes bulge into the spinal canal.

Even if the space within the spinal canal is narrowed in any of these ways, symptoms generally occur only if the narrowing creates pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root.

If canal stenosis causes pain

People who experience symptoms related to canal stenosis often report uncomfortable sensations of numbness, tingling and weakness that travel down one arm or leg. The condition can also cause balance problems and walking difficulties. In very severe cases, bladder or bowel function may become impaired, resulting in a serious condition known as cauda equina syndrome. While cauda equina syndrome is potentially life threatening and requires immediate medical attention, all symptoms should be promptly evaluated by a physician who can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment.

Because canal stenosis can result from a number of degenerative spine conditions, a physician will typically order a series of imaging studies to help pinpoint the underlying problem. Some of the tests that are used for this purpose include spinal X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and computed tomography (CT) scans. A patient can assist with the diagnostic process by keeping a detailed record of his or her symptoms, including when they occurred, as well as their severity and frequency.

After confirming a diagnosis of canal stenosis, a physician may prescribe one or more of the following conservative approaches to address a patient’s symptoms:

  • Activity restriction to minimize body movements and positions that cause or worsen pain
  • Nonsteroidal anti–inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation and relieve pain
  • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen, to alleviate pain
  • Physical therapy to enhance range of motion, strengthen core abdominal and back muscles and build endurance, all of which can help stabilize the spine
  • Corticosteroid injections into an area of the spine that is affected by canal stenosis, which can reduce swelling and minimize pain that radiates to the hips or down a leg
  • Anesthetic injections, or nerve blocks, administered near a nerve that is pressured by canal stenosis to temporarily relieve pain
  • A neck or back brace worn to provide extra support to the spine

If canal stenosis requires surgery

Many people who are diagnosed with canal stenosis and experience symptoms are able to effectively manage their discomfort with nonsurgical treatments. However, if the pain is debilitating, does not respond sufficiently to conservative approaches or progressively worsens, a physician may recommend a surgical procedure to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord or the affected spinal nerve root by creating more space within the spinal canal.

When surgical canal stenosis treatment is necessary, a traditional open spine procedure may not be the only option. The board-certified+ surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive outpatient spine surgery to address the underlying cause of canal stenosis and other degenerative spine conditions.

To learn more and find out if minimally invasive surgery is right for you, contact us today for a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.