What are your options for spinal stenosis treatment?

By Michael Perry, M.D.

If you have been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, also called spinal narrowing, you probably first went to see a doctor about treatment options for your painful symptoms. The pain and weakness, both local and throughout the body, that go with spinal stenosis can be extremely disruptive — taking you away from your job, loved ones and the activities you enjoy. Fortunately, there are many options for spinal stenosis treatment, ranging from conservative to surgical. Before your next appointment, take a moment to review the treatment options available to you so you can be an active participant in the conversation about which treatment options to try for your pain relief.

Spinal stenosis refers to narrowing of the spinal canal and isn’t always painful by itself. But if the narrowing causes any pinching or compressing on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots, debilitating symptoms can occur. Talk to your doctor about the many effective treatments that can bring you relief from pain and discomfort caused by spinal stenosis.

Spinal stenosis treatment addresses the symptoms

Spinal stenosis, if not properly diagnosed or treated, can lead to chronic pain that limits your daily activities. These symptoms can radiate from your neck or back to your shoulders, arms, hips, legs and feet. You can also experience numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation, as well as a loss of flexibility and trouble walking, sitting or leaning backward.

The exact location of symptoms caused by spinal stenosis depends on the part of the spine where the narrowing occurs. Spinal stenosis can happen in the three main regions of the spine:

  • Stenosis in the neck (cervical spine) that compresses a nerve root can cause radiating symptoms out to the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.
  • Stenosis in the middle (thoracic) spine can cause radiating pain around the ribcage.
  • Stenosis in the lower (lumbar) spine can cause symptoms in the lower back, buttocks, hips, legs and feet.

A condition often related to spinal stenosis is sciatica. This is pain you experience when narrowing of the spinal canal compresses the sciatic nerve, which originates in the lower back. Sciatica sufferers often report burning pain, tingling, muscle spasms and weakness in the hips, buttocks and legs.

Myelopathy is a similar condition caused when stenosis compresses the spinal cord in the neck region. Specific symptoms are a loss in fine motor skills, difficulty walking, shooting pains in the arms and a feeling of heaviness in your limbs.

The best spinal stenosis treatment plan for your needs depends on the specific symptoms you are experiencing. Once a proper diagnosis of spinal stenosis is made, usually with the help of imaging — such as an MRI — you and your doctor can begin to explore treatment options.

Conservative and alternative spinal stenosis treatment options

In most cases, the first step in treatment is a course of nonsurgical conservative therapies aimed to alleviate the pain of spinal narrowing. Some of the most common options include:

  • Over the counter medications. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and other medications can help relieve pain and inflammation. Relief is generally only for a limited period of time and you should always work with your doctor to determine a correct dosage.
  • Prescription medications. For more severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications like opioids or anti-inflammatories.
  • Activity modification. Avoiding activities that worsen back pain can make a significant difference in your quality of life. Periods of rest can also help your spinal stenosis symptoms.
  • Hot and cold compress therapy. Applying heat or ice to the area can provide effective relief for stenosis symptoms. The heat relaxes tense muscles in the problem area, while the ice numbs pain and reduces inflammation.
  • Neck or back bracing. A neck or back brace can help steady your spine and restrict painful movement caused by spinal narrowing.
  • Epidural steroid injections. A combination of numbing agents and corticosteroids are injected directly into the epidural space of the spine, providing stronger benefits over medications in pill form. The relief provided can help you complete rehabilitation that would not be possible without it.
  • Physical therapy. Sessions with a professional physical therapist can strengthen the muscles in your neck and back, enhance your flexibility, and improve your posture. Individual exercises may also be prescribed so you can continue working toward these goals on your own.
  • Exercise. In addition to physical therapy, low-impact exercises such as walking or swimming can help improve your overall health and potentially help to reduce your spinal stenosis symptoms.
  • Lifestyle changes. Habits like smoking and alcohol consumption, or carrying extra weight, can speed along the degeneration that causes stenosis. Working with your doctor to develop a plan to quit smoking, reduce drinking and lose weight can both relieve symptoms and potentially lower your risk of future issues.

If at least six weeks of conservative treatment does not prove effective in easing your spinal stenosis symptoms, a doctor may begin to discuss your surgical options. If you’re concerned about the difficulties related to traditional open back surgery, the minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute is an alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery. We offer minimally invasive decompression surgery and minimally invasive stabilization surgery to help treat conditions associated with spinal stenosis. If the spine condition causing the narrowing requires fusion surgery, it may help you to learn about our minimally invasive stabilization procedures.

Contact us today for a no-cost review* of your MRI report and to see if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive surgery.

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