Spinal stenosis is a condition, mostly in adults 50 and older, in which your spinal canal starts to narrow. This can cause pain and other problems.
Your spine is made up of a series of connected bones (or “vertebrae”) and shock-absorbing discs. It protects your spinal cord, a key part of the central nervous system that connects the brain to the body. The cord rests in the canal formed by your vertebrae.
For most people, the stenosis results from changes because of arthritis. The spinal canal may narrow. The open spaces between the vertebrae may start to get smaller. The tightness can pinch the spinal cord or the nerves around it, causing pain, tingling, or numbness in your legs, arms, or torso.
There’s no cure, but there are a variety of nonsurgical treatments and exercises to keep the pain at bay. Most people with spinal stenosis live normal lives.
The leading reason for spinal stenosis is arthritis, a condition caused by the breakdown of cartilage — the cushiony material between your bones — and the growth of bone tissue.
Osteoarthritis can lead to disc changes, a thickening of the ligaments of the spine, and bone spurs. This can put pressure on your spinal cord and spinal nerves.
Other causes include:
- Herniated discs. If the cushions are cracked, the material can seep out and press on your spinal cord or nerves.
- Injuries. An accident may fracture or inflame part of your spine.
- Tumors. If cancerous growths touch the spinal cord, you may get stenosis.
- Paget’s disease. With this condition, your bones grow abnormally large and brittle. The result is a narrowing of the spinal canal and nerve problems.
Some people are born with spinal stenosis or diseases that lead to it. For them, the condition usually starts to cause problems between the ages of 30 and 50.
Spinal stenosis usually affects your neck or lower back. Not everyone has symptoms, but if you do, they tend to be the same: stiffness, numbness, and back pain.
More specific symptoms include:
- Sciatica. These shooting pains down your leg start as an ache in the lower back or buttocks.
- Foot drop. Painful leg weakness may cause you to “slap” your foot on the ground.
- A hard time standing or walking. When you’re upright, it tends to compress the vertebrae, causing pain.
- Loss of bladder or bowel control. In extreme cases, it weakens the nerves to the bladder or bowel.
If you’re having symptoms, you might want to talk them over with your doctor. If you’re having a loss of bladder or bowel control, call your doctor at once.