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Foraminal narrowing of the spine — overview

Foraminal narrowing, also called foraminal stenosis, is when the nerve root exits in the spine — called foramina — become constricted due to a number of reasons. These are small openings that come in pairs on each vertebra, allowing the spinal cord to branch off and travel out to the body. Conditions like spinal arthritis can cause foraminal narrowing, which can compress the exiting nerve roots and result in painful symptoms.

If you are suffering from chronic neck pain, back pain or radiating symptoms it is possible that foraminal narrowing could be the cause, especially if you have arthritis. Finding the right physician in the Scottsdale area to diagnose and treat your condition should involve careful research so that you can understand information that is given to you when you do make an appointment. Reading more about this condition can be a great first step in getting you back to your friends, family, work and hobbies.

Diagnosis of foraminal narrowing

For neck or back pain that doesn’t go away after a few days to a week, it is recommended to visit your family doctor. By reviewing you and your family’s medical history and performing a physical examination your doctor should be able to arrive at a preliminary diagnosis of your condition. If a spine condition is suspected, diagnostic imagery like an X-ray, MRI or CT scan can be used to see if there is anything abnormal in the spine.

One way doctors are able to isolate a likely area of nerve compression in the spine is by the location of radiating symptoms like tingling or numbness. For example, a pinched nerve in the upper spine, like from foraminal narrowing, can cause symptoms in the neck, shoulders, arms and hands. While lower back nerve compression is usually associated with radiating symptoms in the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.

Frequent causes and symptoms

Foraminal narrowing is usually caused by conditions like degenerative disc disease or spinal osteoarthritis, which are themselves usually the result of the natural aging process. Factors like declining circulation cause the joints and discs in the spine to wear out. The rubbery discs that cushion the spine can lose their shape, while arthritic spinal joints can develop bone spurs. Since the spine is so tightly constructed with so many nerves running through it, even a small amount of displaced material can narrow the spinal canal or a nerve root exit.

In addition to local pain or irritation, a pinched nerve related to foraminal narrowing can result in a number of symptoms that radiate to the extremities. Symptoms include:

  • Shooting pains
  • Muscle weakness
  • A pins-and-needles sensation
  • Reduction in fine motor skills
  • Numbness

Getting treatment for conditions related to nerve compression is important, because if left untreated, permanent nerve damage can occur.

Conservative and alternative treatment options

Upon diagnosis of foraminal narrowing most physicians will prescribe a round of conservative treatment to manage symptoms. Many patients are able to successfully return to regular activity and find meaningful pain relief without ever having to resort to surgery. Effective treatments can include rest, exercise, massage therapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. More involved treatments used by spine specialists can include methods like epidural steroid injections, physical therapy and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Due to the highly invasive nature of many procedures, surgery is usually seen as a last resort option when these options have been exhausted.

When to consider surgery

The goal of a surgical procedure to treat foraminal narrowing is to access the spine and decompress the nerves by removing the tissue — such as a bone spur or displaced portion of a disc — that is causing constriction. With traditional open back surgery, this requires a large incision that actually severs essential supporting muscles.

Recovery from this kind of procedure requires overnight hospitalization and a long rehabilitation period. This and other factors like scarring and risk of infection, make undergoing surgery a difficult decision for many patients.

If you are concerned about these aspects of traditional open spine surgery, contact Laser Spine Institute. We are the leaders in minimally invasive spine surgery, which is a minimally invasive alternative to traditional procedures. At our state-of-the-art outpatient center in Scottsdale we perform minimally invasive decompression, and in severe cases, minimally invasive stabilization, procedures that use incisions sometimes less than 1 inch to access the spine. This results in a dramatically shorter recovery period^ for our patients, letting them get back to loved ones, hobbies and work in less time.

Find out if you’re a potential candidate today by reaching out to our Care Team for a no-cost MRI review.*