What is spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a condition that can cause pain, numbness, or tingling in the back or down the legs. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal or of the spaces between the vertebrae where spinal nerves pass through. This narrowing is usually caused by arthritis or injury, and can cause symptoms for different reasons.

Your back is made up of bones, muscles, nerves, and other tissues that work together to help you stand and bend

There are four main regions of the back;

 The cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral zones.

  1. There are 7 cervical vertebrae located in the neck
  2. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae located in the upper back
  3. There are 5 lumbar vertebrae located in the lower back
  4. The sacrum and coccyx are fused bones, found at the base of the spinal column

The vertebrae are stacked on top of one another with the spinal cord passing through openings in the back of the vertebrae, and small nerves exiting from the spinal cord and passing through spaces on the sides of the vertebrae. The vertebrae are held together by ligaments and tendons, allowing the vertebrae to move together as the spinal column bends forwards, backwards, and side to side.

The spinal cord is the highway of nerves running through the vertebrae that connects the brain to the rest of the body (this is why problems in the back can cause leg pain or bladder and bowel problems.)

Between each stacked pair of vertebrae in the spinal column is a disc made of a tough outer tissue and a gel-like inner pulp. These discs protect the bones, acting like cushions or shock absorbers.

The vertebrae can form bone spurs – small growths that pinch the spinal cord or the nerves branching from the spinal cord and discs can shrink and make the space between the vertebrae smaller. This can cause the vertebrae to pinch the nerves that pass through them.

What are the symptoms of spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis does not always cause obvious symptoms, when it does they are usually worse when the person is walking or standing upright, getting better if they sit down or bend forward at the waist.

Other common symptoms are back pain and tingling or numbness that spreads down the legs. Severe spinal stenosis can cause leg weakness or even trouble controlling your bowels or bladder.

How is spinal stenosis diagnosed?

Imaging tests, such as an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan, can show what’s going on inside your back.

How is spinal stenosis treated?

A small number of people end up needing surgery to treat a spinal stenosis. But most people do well with a combination of physiotherapy to teach you special exercises and stretches to improve your strength and flexibility, hands-on massage and pain medication for flare-ups.

What can I can do on my own to feel better?

People instinctively think that bedrest is the best treatment for a bad back. The truth is, bedrest can actually make back problems worse because the back can get weak and stiff with too much rest.

Even if you have some pain or discomfort, stay as active as possible. One of the most important things not to do is to stay in bed or rest too long.

Find physical activities you like to do and slowly do more. While working with your physio to avoid any activities, such as bending or lifting, that you shouldn’t do for a while.

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