If you’re over 50, you’ve probably experienced the subtle — and not so subtle — changes that aging can cause in your body. No matter how well you take care of yourself, “natural wear-and-tear” can sometimes lead to problems, like spinal stenosis.
What is Spinal Stenosis?
Part of the normal aging process includes the narrowing of the space around your spinal cord, which can put pressure on the spinal nerve and cause pain. It can also happen to younger people who get injured or who were born with a narrow spinal canal or curved spine.
What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?
Symptoms of spinal stenosis can vary significantly. Some people feel nothing at all, while others experience intense discomfort. Usually, symptoms gradually worsen over time.
Mild to Moderate Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
If there’s pressure on your spinal cord or nerve roots, you may have a slow onset and progression of symptoms, including:
- Neck or back pain
- Arm or leg weakness
- Arm or leg numbness
- Shooting pain in your buttocks that shoots down your leg
Severe Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
Cauda equina syndrome is an extremely rare, but serious form of spinal stenosis that requires immediate medical attention.
Get medical help right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Sexual dysfunction
- Weakness, pain or loss of feeling in your legs
How is Spinal Stenosis Diagnosed?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of spinal stenosis, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis. Several methods can be used to diagnose spinal stenosis, and to rule out other conditions.
Your doctor may use any combination of the following:
- Overview of your medical history. You discuss any injuries, conditions or general health problems that could be causing your symptoms.
- Physical examination. Your doctor examines your range of movement to see if you have pain or other symptoms when you bend backward, and checks for normal neurologic function (sensation, muscle strength and reflexes) in your arms and legs.
- X-ray. An X-ray shows the structure of your vertebrae and if there is any calcification, which can give your doctor insight about any injuries, tumors or other problems.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). These cross-sectional 3D images of your back can detect damage or disease of the soft tissues in your spine. It can also show enlargement, degeneration or tumors.
- CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) Scan. A CAT scan allows doctors to see the shape and size of your spinal canal, what’s in it, and the structures around it.
- Myelogram. A liquid dye is injected into your spinal column and circulates around your spinal cord and nerves so your doctor can see if there’s any pressure on your spinal cord or nerves from herniated discs, tumors or bone spurs.
- Bone Scan. Your doctor injects a radioactive material that attaches to the bone to help detect fractures, infections, tumors, and arthritis.
How is Spinal Stenosis Treated?
There’s no cure for spinal stenosis, but your doctor can help you reduce discomfort and improve function.
Nonsurgical treatment options include:
- Medicine to reduce pain and swelling
- Back brace
- Physical therapy
If nonsurgical treatments aren’t enough, you may require surgery. Surgery may also be considered if you have:
- Trouble walking
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Problems with your nervous system
The multidisciplinary team at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center can help you regain comfort and functionality. Schedule an appointment to see an Emory specialist today. Call 404-778-3350 or complete our online appointment request form.
About Howard I. Levy, MD
Dr. Levy has been practicing at Emory since 1993 and 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.
The Road to Emory: Education
Medical school: University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, FL
Internship: Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY
Residency: Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, NY
Fellowship: Bronx Veteran’s Medical Center, Bronx, NY