Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column that creates pressure on spinal nerves and causes pain.

Spinal stenosis usually occurs as a person ages and the discs become drier and start to bulge. At the same time, the bones and ligaments of the spine thicken or grow larger due to arthritis or long-term swelling. 

Many people with spinal stenosis are able to be active for many years with the condition, although they may need to make some changes in their activities or work.

Causes and Symptoms

In addition to a narrowing of the spine, spinal stenosis may also be caused by:

  • Arthritis in the spine, usually in middle-aged or elderly people
  • Bone diseases, such as Paget's disease
  • Defects or growths in the spine that have been present since birth
  • Injuries that cause pressure on the nerve or the spinal cord
  • Cancerous tumors in the spine

Spinal stenosis symptoms often become worse over time, but this may happen very slowly.

Symptoms include:

  • Numbness, cramping or pain in the back, buttocks, thighs or calves, or in the neck, shoulders or arms
  • Weakness in part of a leg or arm
  • Difficult or poor balance when walking

Most often, symptoms will be on one side of the body or the other, but may involve both legs.

Treating Spinal Stenosis: Avoiding Surgery

Learning to take care of your back at home and prevent repeat episodes of back pain can help you avoid surgery.

Pain and discomfort from spinal stenosis can often be relieved by:

  • Cold packs and heat therapy during flare-ups
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Various pain medications

Physical therapy can help you reduce your pain, using stretches and exercises to help make your neck muscles stronger.

Surgery for Spinal Stenosis

If the pain does not respond to other treatments — or you lose movement or feeling — you may need surgery to relieve pressure on the nerves or spinal cord.

Surgical treatments for spine pain caused by spinal stenosis include foraminotomy, laminectomy and spinal fusion. Spine surgery will often partly or fully relieve symptoms. Most people find after surgery they are able to be more active with less pain. However, people who had long-term back pain before their surgery are still likely to have some pain afterward.

For more information about spinal stenosis you can contact the Spine Center at Virginia Mason by calling (206) 417-7463.