Spinal Stenosis: Diagnosis and Symptoms

Spinal StenosisAs the baby boomer population ages, approximately 2.4 million Americans will experience lumbar spinal stenosis by 2021, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases describes spinal stenosis as the narrowing of the spaces in the spine. This results in pressure being applied on the spinal cord and nerve roots. This narrowing condition can happen in three parts of the spine:

  1. The canal in the center of the spinal column, which holds the spinal cord and nerve roots
  2. The canals at the base of nerves that branch out of the spinal cord
  3. The openings between the vertebrae, which the nerves leave through to spread to the rest of the body

Sometimes this narrowing of the space inside the spinal canal produces no symptoms. However, if this places pressure on the spinal cord, cauda equina (a bundle of spinal nerves and nerve roots at the base of the spinal column), or nerve roots, there could be a slow onset and progression of symptoms. The neck or back may or may not hurt. Most often, people suffering from spinal stenosis experience weakness, cramping, numbness or pain in their arms or legs. If the pressure is mainly on a nerve root, they could experience a shooting pain down their leg, also known as sciatica.

If the spinal stenosis is severe, people may have issues with their bowel and bladder function, or even disorders of the foot. Cauda equina syndrome is an extremely rare, but serious form of spinal stenosis, and can cause loss of control of the bowel, bladder, sexual function, and/or loss of feeling, weakness or pain in the legs. This is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Because of the range of severity and symptoms, it is important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor. They can use several methods to diagnose spinal stenosis and to rule out other conditions:

  • Questions about your medical history: you may have to explain details about any injuries, conditions or general health problems that could be causing these symptoms.
  • Physical examination: Your doctor will examine you to determine your range of movement, to see if you have pain or other symptoms when you bend backwards, and if you have normal neurologic function (sensation, muscle strength, and reflexes) in your arms and legs.
  • X-Ray: An x-ray of your back may be taken to find signs of an injury, tumor, or other problem. It will show the structure of the vertebrae and if there is any calcification.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): An MRI can produce cross-sectional 3D images of your back, and can detect damage or disease of the soft tissues in your spine, and can show enlargement, degeneration or tumors.
  • CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) Scan: This method can also show cross-sectional and/or 3D images, but can also display the shape and size of the spinal canal, what is in it, and the structures around it.
  • Myelogram: This is a liquid dye that x-rays can’t go through. It is injected into the spinal column and circulates around the spinal cord and nerves, which show up as white on the x-ray film. It can show the doctor if there is any pressure on the spinal cord or nerves from herniated disks, tumors or bone spurs.
  • Bone Scan: Your doctor may inject radioactive material that can attach to bone, especially where the bone is breaking down or being formed. This helps detect fractures, infections, tumors and arthritis (though it’s hard to tell between them). So a bone scan might be done along with other tests.

If you feel any of the symptoms outlined above, contact your doctor for a diagnosis. Though there is no complete cure for this ailment, with the guidance of your physician, steps can be taken to reduce pain and discomfort, and improve flexibility.

About Dr. Howard Levy

Howard Levy, MDDr. Levy is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Orthopaedics and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Emory University School of Medicine. Dr. Levy specializes in non-operative spine care and focuses on helping patients achieve their best functional level. Dr. Levy started practicing at Emory in 1993.

Related Resources

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