Spinal stenosis is a condition that affects the back bones, the spine and the nerves that branch out from the spine. It is characterized by a narrowing of the spinal column and compression of the nerves that extend from the affected area. Usually, the soft tissues that surround the spinal cord might calcify and compress the spine. This condition occurs in lumbar spinal stenosis. However, this situation can also occur in the upper back. It can normally be caused by the usual age-related degeneration of the bone or present congenitally in varying degrees. Other health conditions like osteoporosis, spinal disc herniation or certain tumors can also cause spinal stenosis.
You should suspect that you have spinal stenosis when you exhibit the following symptoms:
- Pain. There is radiating pain known as sciatica, throughout the location of the narrowing spine. This pain might not be localized, as it could extend down the length of the limb where the compression is nearest. There may even be bouts of bad headaches, especially when the stenosis is near the neck.
- Numbness or stiffness. Leg cramps and leg pain are common, especially during prolonged walking or standing. This claudication is often relieved by sitting down or bending forward, thus reducing spinal strain and pressure. Lack of sensation, tingling or even a burning feeling may also be experienced. Many sufferers of this condition will experience mild to severe weakness of their limbs depending on the pressure experienced by their spine. In extreme cases, this could affect their ability to walk or hold objects in their hands.
- Postural imbalance. The pressure experienced by the spine may affect balance. This can be manifested by tripping, feeling off-center and falling over when the limb pain attacks.
- Incontinence. Compressed nerves can also affect bladder control and even bowel movements. This is actually an embarrassing and highly severe effect of spinal stenosis when the nerves responsible for its control get damaged. They may be partial or complete – either way, contact a healthcare provider immediately.
- Sexual difficulties. This can come about as a severe form of cauda equina syndrome. This is an area at the tip of the spine that contains nerve roots. If these become damaged through persistent compression, sexual dysfunction might occur because the genitals will not function properly.
Keeping an active lifestyle prevents stenosis of the spine. This keeps your muscles flexible and toned. Joint flexing or non-impact walking helps keep the muscle together. Another alternative exercise would be riding a stationary bike.
Spinal stenosis can severely affect one's quality of life, as the condition can present varying degrees of pain. If you have the symptoms described above, it is best to see a health professional to confirm your suspicions. They usually conduct tests that could be as cheap as the bicycle test of Gelderen to highly sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging or computerized tomography. All of these tests are actually aimed at differentiating spinal stenosis from vascular diseases that might cause similar symptoms.