Spinal Narrowing Explained by the Experts at Laser Spine Institute

Spinal narrowing is a common cause of neck and back pain, especially in people who are over age 50. Sometimes, the discomfort is initially unnoticeable because it develops so slowly and subtly. In other cases, a distinct neck- or backache strikes very suddenly after the spine is overtaxed in a certain way —like through excessive twisting or heavy lifting. But, the condition, which is also known as spinal stenosis, does not always cause problems.

How does the spine become narrower?

Spinal stenosis is actually a narrowing of the space within the spinal column, which houses and protects the spinal cord and a series of sensitive nerve roots. This narrowing effect is usually caused by age-related degeneration. For instance, conditions like osteoarthritis of the spine and degenerative disc disease can lead to the enlargement of spinal joints, the inflammation of spinal ligaments, the development of bone spurs on vertebrae and the degeneration of spinal discs, all of which produce excess tissue that can crowd the spinal canal. Additionally, some people are born with naturally narrow spinal canals. Spinal narrowing can also occur through a traumatic injury.

Regardless of the reason for spinal narrowing, the condition generally causes discomfort only under certain circumstances. Specifically, if the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root becomes “pinched” due to the reduced amount of space within the spinal canal, the compressed nerve tissue may begin to send pain signals.

What to do if you think you might have spinal narrowing

The symptoms of spinal narrowing are shared by many other spinal conditions. Here are some of the signs to watch for:

  • Neck or back pain that ranges from mild to severe
  • Pain, weakness, numbness or tingling sensations that travel through the buttocks and legs (sciatica) or shoulders and arms
  • Pain that worsens when walking, standing or bending backward
  • Pain that improves with rest or leaning forward
  • In rare cases, bladder or bowel incontinence (an emergency condition known as cauda equina syndrome, which results from extreme pressure on the end of the spinal cord and requires immediate medical attention)

Whether the source of these symptoms is spinal narrowing or another spinal condition, the root cause can be very complex, so it’s important to see a physician who can provide a proper diagnosis. As a general rule of thumb, mild to moderate spinal discomfort that doesn’t resolve on its own within a few weeks should be evaluated by a medical professional.

The diagnosis and treatment of spinal narrowing

To diagnose spinal narrowing, a physician will typically:

  • Take a medical history. The physician will ask about the symptoms, their severity, the treatments previously attempted (if any) and the results.
  • Perform a physical examination. The physician will examine the patient, looking specifically for movement limitations, balance problems and pain. During an exam, the physician may evaluate the degree of muscle weakness, loss of sensation, loss of extremity reflexes and other possible signs of neurological problems.
  • Evaluate the results of diagnostic tests. The physician will likely order some X-rays, which can be helpful for ruling out other problems, such as infections and tumors. CT scans and MRIs may be performed to provide more detail about the spinal condition, such as evidence of a herniated disc or bone spur.

After confirming that spinal narrowing is the cause of a patient’s symptoms, a physician will likely advise the patient to begin with one or more nonsurgical treatments, depending on the severity of the patient’s discomfort. Some options that can provide effective relief from the symptoms of nerve compression caused by spinal narrowing include:

  • Medications, such as anti-inflammatories to reduce painful swelling, muscle relaxants to calm spasms and general pain relievers
  • Hot and cold therapy, especially during the first few hours of a painful episode
  • Physical therapy, which can include stretches, therapeutic exercises, bracing and gentle massage to reduce pain and enhance function
  • Epidural steroid injections to deliver powerful anti-inflammatory medications directly to the area affected by spinal narrowing
  • Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation

Along with these treatments, the physician can educate the patient about the importance of good posture and proper body mechanics.

If the pain becomes unbearable

In some cases, nonsurgical measures do not provide sufficient relief, and spinal decompression surgery may be recommended to address the nerve compression caused by spinal narrowing. The goal of surgery is to alleviate pain by taking pressure off of, the spinal cord or the affected nerve root by removing or reducing the source of compression.

Anyone who is considering surgical intervention should know that there are several different surgical techniques that can be used for treating spinal narrowing. For instance, the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive procedures that are safer and effective alternatives to traditional open neck and back procedures^ for treating spinal narrowing.

If you’d like to learn more, contact Laser Spine Institute. We can offer a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.