Spinal stenosis is a common spinal condition that occurs when the space within the spinal canal decreases. As the spinal canal gradually becomes narrower, it may put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves.
If you’re diagnosed with spinal stenosis, you may be wondering about the severity of this spinal condition. Here, we’ll cover the basics of spinal stenosis, discuss its severity, and provide our top tips for what to do after receiving a spinal stenosis diagnosis.
What Causes Spinal Stenosis?
Most often, spinal stenosis is caused by natural, age-related changes to the spine, such as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease.
- Osteoarthritis, or “wear and tear” arthritis, can impact the facet joints of the spine. With this condition, the cartilage protecting the joints gradually breaks down. This causes increased friction in the joints, and, potentially, bone spurs.
- Bone spurs from osteoarthritis of the facet joints can take up space in the spine and may cause spinal stenosis.
- Degenerative disc disease refers to age-related changes to the intervertebral discs that cushion the spine. With this condition, patients may experience a bulging or herniated disc.
- A bulging disc occurs when the tough disc exterior weakens and bulges out to one side of the spinal canal. A herniated disc occurs when the exterior breaks, allowing the soft disc interior to protrude into the spinal canal. Either of these conditions can reduce the open space in the spinal canal, leading to stenosis.
Spinal stenosis may also be caused by the gradual thickening of the spinal ligaments with age. As the ligaments become thicker, they take up more space in the spinal canal.
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
Symptoms of spinal stenosis can include:
- Persistent back pain
- Numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Sciatica (nerve pain that travels from the lower back to the buttocks and down the backs of the legs to the feet)
- Weakness and problems with strength, balance, and/or coordination
How Serious is Spinal Stenosis?
In its early stages, spinal stenosis isn’t considered a serious condition. In fact, some people don’t experience any symptoms from this condition, which is known as asymptomatic spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis can trigger pain, weakness, and neurological symptoms if it causes nerve compression and irritation. Oftentimes, these symptoms can be resolved with non-invasive treatments if the condition is promptly addressed by a medical professional.
However, if spinal stenosis isn’t treated, it can become worse and even lead to permanent nerve damage. Severe spinal stenosis can also involve symptoms including daily, debilitating pain and lost bladder or bowel function.
To limit the severity of spinal stenosis, it’s crucial to have any symptoms evaluated by a spine specialist.
When is Surgery Required For Spinal Stenosis?
Severe cases of spinal stenosis that don’t improve despite conservative treatment methods may require surgery. The goal of spinal stenosis surgery is to alleviate pain, restore range of motion, and improve the patient’s overall quality of life.
Spinal stenosis surgery involves spinal decompression. Spinal decompression procedures alleviate spinal stenosis symptoms by creating more space in the spinal canal.
Types of spinal decompression surgery include:
- Laminectomy and laminotomy, which involve removing some or all of the lamina
- Discectomy, which involves removing damaged intervertebral disc tissue
- Foraminotomy, which involves enlarging the intervertebral foramen
All of these procedures can alleviate nerve compression caused by spinal stenosis.
Spinal Fusion For Spinal Stenosis
Typically, spinal decompression is followed by spinal fusion. The goal of spinal fusion is to stabilize the spine by fusing the vulnerable vertebrae into a single bone. This eradicates motion at the fused spinal segment.
Although spinal fusion can successfully prevent instability after spinal decompression, there are reasons to think twice about undergoing this procedure, including:
- Lost range of motion
Perhaps the main reason why many patients and physicians alike dislike spinal fusion is that it limits the range of motion in the spine. After fusion, patients won’t be able to bend, twist, or flex the spine at the fused segment. In some cases, patients can’t pick up items off of the floor after fusion without a special tool.
- Lengthy recovery period
Spinal fusion also involves a lengthy recovery period. After spending up to four days in the hospital, patients will begin a recovery process that could take a full year to complete. Additionally, patients generally must take several weeks off of work after spinal fusion.
- Risk of adjacent segment disorder
Adjacent segment disorder, or ASD, is a possible complication of spinal fusion. The vertebrae on top of and below the fused segment are put under added stress after the procedure. Over time, this can cause the vertebrae to degenerate more rapidly than usual, often leading to back pain and neurological symptoms.
Are Spinal Fusion Alternatives Available?
If you have a severe case of spinal stenosis that requires surgery, you may be a candidate for non-fusion spinal implants.
A non-fusion spinal stenosis treatment surgery implant is a spine device that can be used after decompressive laminectomy and related procedures. As one of the spinal fusion alternatives available today, a non-fusion implant stabilizes the spine while maintaining the patient’s range of motion in the back.
What To Do If You’re Diagnosed With Spinal Stenosis
If you’re diagnosed with spinal stenosis, there are several steps that you can take to support your recovery. Here are our top tips:
- Consider getting a second opinion.
Spinal stenosis misdiagnoses are relatively common. This spinal condition has similar symptoms to those of a herniated disc, neuropathy, peripheral arterial disease, and even infections and tumors in the back.
- Avoid activities that strain the spine.
After receiving a spinal stenosis diagnosis, avoid activities that could lead to increased pain, such as running, long walks, extreme back extension, and contact sports.
- Don’t go on extended bed rest.
While it’s crucial to avoid activities that strain the spine, it’s also important to avoid excessive bed rest with spinal stenosis. This can lead to increased stiffness and pain, as well as reduced circulation to the inflamed spinal tissue.
- Quit smoking.
Nicotine is a serious detriment to your body’s healing process, as it causes blood vessel constriction. So, if you’re diagnosed with spinal stenosis, quitting smoking will have a major, positive impact on your recovery.
If you’re diagnosed with spinal stenosis, make sure to talk to your physician about all of the treatment options available to you.