Typically, your spinal canal operates as a safe channel, wrapping your spinal cord in protection. But if something causes your canal to narrow, it puts pressure on your spinal cord and the attached nerves, a condition known as spinal stenosis.
This often painful condition can take root in your lower back (known as your lumbar spine) or neck (known as your cervical spine) and cause numbness, cramping, and weakness. Sometimes you can also feel pain in your hands and feet.
While it may seem like older adults (ages 50 and up) are the ones who develop this condition, younger people can also experience spinal stenosis from injury or simply having a narrower-than-usual spinal canal. Yet injury and the type of spinal canal you were born with aren’t the only reasons spinal stenosis can occur.
Many people find that spinal stenosis tends to develop slowly and become severe with age, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t hope — even if it starts earlier thank you would like.
Spinal stenosis can definitely be managed. First, though, you’ll want to understand the condition and exactly how it’s caused or aggravated. If you’re wondering how to relieve pain from spinal stenosis (or even how to develop a solid treatment plan), here’s everything you want to know.
Spinal stenosis can be brought on in many ways.
Did you know your spinal discs are made out of a gelatin-like substance? As you age, that substance starts to dry out. This is why simply getting older can also cause spinal stenosis to form. Think of it as a pillow for your bones. The thinner it gets, the less cushion bones have. This can cause them to pinch or compress your nerves or your spinal cord.
Two other common causes of spinal stenosis are osteoarthritis, a joint disease where the tissues in your joints break down over time, and rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic joint disease that can make your wrists, hands, feet, spine, knees, or jaw inflamed.
A rare type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, can potentially lead to spinal stenosis, too. In ankylosing spondylitis, spinal joints that become inflamed can cause intense pain and discomfort. Over time, experiencing this inflammation on a chronic basis can wear down the bones of your joints, lead to scar tissue and narrow your spinal canal.
Injuries or diseases
Injuries can bring on the development of spinal stenosis as well. Some diseases, like Paget’s disease of the bone, can make you more susceptible to spinal stenosis. In this chronic disorder, a select bone or group of bones can grow larger and weaker with time. This can lead to quicker narrowing of your spine, especially if the bones that have the disease are in your spinal area.
Growths or natural development
It’s possible for stenosis to be the result of tumors of your spine (though this is less common). Being born with a narrow spine or a genetic condition like scoliosis might also cause spinal stenosis to one day present itself.
It’s often the little things that can cause spinal stenosis to flare up. Yet being aware of these triggers can help you avoid them as you work on easing your symptoms.
Lifting heavy objects or long-distance walks are not friendly to spinal stenosis. Both can potentially make your pain worse. Sometimes other physical activities can contribute to pain, too. Keep an eye on how you feel: If you’re finding that an activity is causing you discomfort, it’s best to put it on pause until you feel better.
On the flip side, not enough exercise can also make spinal stenosis worse. Therefore, finding a healthy balance is key. The American College of Rheumatology recommends exercising at least three times a week for about 30 minutes with a focus on flexion-based (or forward-bending) exercises.
Thankfully, there is plenty to be done to effectively manage spinal stenosis. Even though there isn’t a cure just yet, a number of treatment options are proven to help reduce pain and other symptoms.
Exercise is one of the best ways to keep spinal stenosis manageable. Regular exercise can help build strength in your muscles, especially in your arms and upper legs, which can improve your balance, ability to walk, and overall pain levels.
You can also turn to over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain relief. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as Advil and Motrin, or naproxen options including Aleve and Anaprox are all options.
If OTC medications don’t do the trick, your doctor might consider adding a prescription pain relief to your regimen. This can help relieve pesky pain and muscle spasms caused by spinal stenosis. Cortisone injections can also work wonders in more severe cases, with potential to reduce ongoing symptoms.
In the most severe cases, surgery can be considered, though this is often a last resort. One type of surgery called decompression laminectomy has the power to remove bony spurs and bone buildup in your spinal canal. This frees up more space for your nerves and spinal cord, helping to reduce nerve compression and in turn spinal pain.
Spinal stenosis can sometimes qualify as a permanent disability. This means some people with spinal stenosis might be eligible for disability benefits. To qualify, you may need medical exams and other documentation of your condition.
If spinal stenosis keeps you from working or being able to perform basic day-to-day functions, like cleaning or cooking, you may qualify for permanent disability benefits. In these cases, spinal stenosis is considered to have caused permanent damage.
Not being able to sit for long periods of time at work or lift heavy objects for your job are also reasons why spinal stenosis can become a permanent disability.
Sure, spinal stenosis can be painful and sometimes frustrating. Yet, through a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatment, this condition can successfully be managed. Regularly checking in with your doctor can help you keep symptoms of spinal stenosis at bay and develop a treatment plan that works for you.