What is spinal stenosis?
Spinal stenosis is a condition where your spinal canal narrows abnormally, putting pressure on your spinal cord and the nerves travelling through it.
Types of spinal stenosis
There are 2 main types of spinal stenosis. They differ according to where the narrowing occurs along the spine.
- Cervical stenosis – This condition occurs when the narrowing of your spinal canal is localised in the neck.
- Lumbar stenosis – This condition is more common than cervical stenosis. It occurs when your spinal canal narrows in your lower back.
Symptoms of spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis can be detected early using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computerised tomography (CT) scan, even if you don't have any symptoms. However, once symptoms start showing, the condition generally worsens over time if left untreated.
The symptoms for the disease differ based on where the narrowing is located along the spine:
1. Cervical stenosis symptoms
- Numbness or a prickling sensation in the arms and/or legs
- Weakness in the limbs
- Lack of balance when walking or standing
- Pain in the neck
- Bowel or urinary incontinence
2. Lumbar stenosis symptoms
- Numbness or a prickling sensation in the legs
- Trouble moving the legs and/or feet
- Painful sensation or tiredness in the legs when standing or walking for too long
- Back aches
Sitting down may alleviate these symptoms temporarily, but they often return once you stand up, or start walking again.
Causes of spinal stenosis
- Osteoarthritis – When the cartilage that protects the ends of the bones in your spine deteriorate over time, it can cause these bones to rub against each other, causing bone spurs. This growth of new bone can put pressure on the spine and lead to spinal stenosis.
- Slipped disc – This condition, also known as 'herniated disc', happens when a disc between two vertebrae in your spine moves out of place. This can put pressure on the surrounding nerves and cause spinal stenosis.
- Thickened ligaments – The ligaments and soft tissues in your spine that keep it together can thicken and stiffen to the point they push against the spinal canal and cause spinal stenosis.
- Tumours – Cancer cells can grow within the spaces in the spinal cord and develop into a tumour that presses on the nerves in your spine. However, this is not a common cause of spinal stenosis.
- Traumatic injuries – A physical injury to the spine may cause damage to the bone and soft tissues and change its structure, causing compression on the nerves in your spine.
- Paget's disease – This disease occurs when the normal mechanism that regenerates the bones in your body gets disrupted. This causes newly regenerated bone to be abnormally shaped and sometimes overgrown, leading to spinal stenosis.
Old age is the biggest factor in developing spinal stenosis. As you get older, the chance of developing a degenerative disease such as osteoarthritis increases. The vast majority of people with the disease are above the age of 50. However, the condition can also develop in people with scoliosis.
When to see a doctor
The symptoms of spinal stenosis are distinctive and should be an immediate cause for concern. Leaving the condition untreated can lead to permanent damage to your spine and may even result in paralysis.
If you suspect you may have spinal stenosis, consult an orthopaedic surgeon to evaluate your condition and understand your treatment options.