With relatively few exceptions, spinal stenosis is simply one of those things that happens as you grow older. The cartilage and fluid/gas pockets that cushion your bones may wear down in a condition called osteoarthritis, or they may swell to painful sizes thanks to rheumatoid arthritis. Your bones may also grow smaller and weaker through a process called osteoporosis. Any of these conditions can strike as an individual grows older, and just one of them can potentially bring spinal stenosis along with it.
Technically speaking, spinal stenosis is a condition in which something is putting pressure on a person’s spinal cord. In some cases it’s because a connecting ligament has grown thick and forced its way into the spinal canal, but in others it’s because of gradually decaying bones and cartilage which can shift individual vertebra slightly out of alignment, creating a potentially very painful and very debilitating pinch.
Identifying The Symptoms Of Spinal Stenosis
The first problem with spinal stenosis is that someone can have the condition but otherwise be completely fine. Something may be pressing against their spinal cord, but as long as it doesn’t press hard enough to disrupt the connections between your mind and body or else cause an inflammation (which just makes everything worse), that person will be asymptomatic.
However, symptoms can flare up at any time if this person should happen to be hit hard enough in just the right spot to cause the spinal cord to swell up. In such a case, the primary symptoms are basically what you’d expect from a struggling connection:
- Random bouts of pain, heat, and cold
- Tingling sensations and numbness
- Muscle spasms and weakness
Specifically, these symptoms will affect the legs if the spinal stenosis should happen to be based in the lumbar or lower back region. That’s where you’ll find it in three out of every four cases, but the fourth will be based in the cervical vertebrae of the neck and head. If that should happen, you’ll experience these symptoms throughout everything below the neck. Also, if you’re up against a severe case of cervical stenosis you should add the following:
- Incontinence and random loss of bowel control
- Dizzy spells and a loss of balance
- The (remote) possibility of permanent paralysis
Narrowing Down The Cause Of Your Spinal Stenosis
Of course, just because you’ve got a list of symptoms doesn’t mean that spinal stenosis is the only possible answer. Lumbar stenosis shares its primary symptom, a significant, throbbing pain in the legs, with chronic venous insufficiency, a condition which particularly affects the elderly and the overweight. CVI occurs when the one-way valves in a person’s veins fail and permit blood to pool in the legs, and to many it aches much the same as lumbar stenosis. That’s why it’s important to test for a given condition and to get a professional doctor’s diagnosis before you continue on with anything else.
Beyond the basic background checks and diagnosis questions that can cut out obvious wrong answers, a doctor may perform any of a number of different tests to check for spinal stenosis.
- X-rays are almost always first. While a basic x-ray may not be the best way to pick out nuances like weakening bones, it’s a cheap test and it can still eliminate obvious answers like tumors, bone spurs, and osteoarthritis.
- On the other hand, CT and MRI scans have the resolution to spot things like herniated and swollen discs. This resolution may be enough for most diagnoses, but with so many different causes of spinal stenosis it can help to have an even clearer picture.
- A bone scan is what you get when you drink a mildly radioactive substance so that a camera that detects radiation can take a picture of your bones. Anomalies and injuries show up extra bright on bone scans since radiation is generally drawn more towards these locations. This gives your doctor the ability to detect things like osteoarthritis, infections, and inflammations.
- A CT myelogram acts like a regular CT scan but with the addition of a special die to add visibility, much the same as the radiation for the bone scan. Performing a myelogram makes a correct diagnosis of spinal stenosis all but certain, and as a bonus the doctor will also know exactly what’s wrong and just whom to send you to for treatment.
Understanding The Solutions
There are a variety of potential responses to a diagnosis of spinal stenosis. Many of them are actually quite ordinary: eat right, exercise, and avoid lifting heavy objects but at the same time don’t let the nearby muscles atrophy. That last condition means you have to be careful with how exactly you plan on exercising, but you can brainstorm with a physical therapist to figure out the best combination of low-impact exercises to best benefit your spine.
Then again, you may want to consult with a chiropractor instead. The chiropractic biophysical method uses low-impact resistance training both to strengthen back and neck muscles and to encourage patients to adopt the ideal triple-curve posture which follows the body’s natural lines and distributes weight evenly so that your spine is under the least amount of stress possible.
Another option is to use any of a variety of anti-inflammatory and painkiller medications to help reduce the pain as much as possible. Some are over-the-counter drugs, some are prescription only, and it’s up to you and your doctor to work out exactly what you need based on how much pain you’re experiencing (after you’ve done your best to reduce it with proper stretching and exercises, of course).
Finally, the most drastic option is to use surgery to end the pain once and for all (hopefully). By opening up the spinal canal you can give your spinal cord all the room it needs, but operating on the spine carries a lot of risks – that’s why only 1 in 20 with spinal stenosis ever bother with it.
Spinal stenosis is a fairly common condition that can cause a lot of pain, but it’s the kind of pain you can reduce with the right approach until it’s at least down to a level you can work with. And if you live in Vancouver and you think you could use a good chiropractor to help accomplish this goal, then make sure you meet with Dr. Stuart Kilian of Advantage Chiropractic.