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Spinal narrowing overview

Spinal narrowing, also called spinal stenosis, is a condition that refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal. This condition can be caused by a number of factors, such as injury or infection, but the most common cause of spinal narrowing is simply the changes that naturally occur in the spine with age.

Over time, as spinal narrowing develops and worsens, the risk for nerve compression within the narrowing canal increases. If a nerve becomes compressed within the narrowed spinal canal, painful symptoms can develop. These symptoms can often be treated with conservative therapies, though sometimes spine surgery is necessary to remove pressure from the pinched nerve, create more space within the spinal canal and help prevent future nerve compression.

Causes of spinal narrowing

While spinal narrowing is a spine condition on its own, it is most often caused as a result of another spine condition that has developed with the natural degeneration of the spine.

For example, a herniated or bulging disc that develops as the spine weakens can protrude into the spinal canal, narrowing the available space within the canal for the nerve roots to travel. In this example, spinal narrowing would develop due to a damaged disc, and the treatment for spinal narrowing would involve treating the damaged disc.

Common degenerative spine conditions that can protrude into the spinal canal and cause spinal narrowing to develop include:

  • Herniated disc
  • Bulging disc
  • Bone spurs
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Facet disease
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Scoliosis

These conditions can develop as the spine weakens with age, causing the components of the spine to bear more weight and pressure — ultimately making the spine more susceptible to damage.

However, other cases of degenerative spinal narrowing are not caused by a secondary spine condition but simply by the natural changes to the shape of the spinal canal as the body ages. This is a less common cause compared to spinal narrowing from other spine conditions. Other less common causes include injury, trauma and infection to the spine.

Regardless of the cause of spinal narrowing, this condition increases the risk for developing a pinched nerve. The spinal canal hosts a variety of spinal nerve roots, and as the canal narrows, the risk for one of these nerve roots to become compressed increases. If a nerve root does become pinched due to spinal narrowing, several painful symptoms can develop.

Symptoms of spinal narrowing

A pinched nerve caused by spinal narrowing can result in the following symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Limited mobility
  • Tingling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Burning sensation
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control — seek emergency medical attention immediately

These symptoms can travel along the pathway of the pinched nerve, impacting different areas of the body. For example, spinal narrowing in the lumbar spine (lower back) can cause symptoms to develop in the lower back, buttocks, legs and feet.

The development of any of these symptoms should be monitored. If they do not subside after a week or so of home remedies like rest and hot/cold compresses, you should schedule a visit to your doctor’s office for a proper diagnosis of what is causing your pain.

Diagnosing spinal narrowing

Because spinal narrowing is often caused by the development of another spine condition, diagnosing spinal narrowing often means diagnosing the other degenerative condition. This can be done through a physical examination and a medical imaging test.

During your physical examination, your doctor will determine the location of your nerve compression and spinal narrowing by pressing into different areas along the spine. If you are experiencing radiating symptoms — symptoms the spread into other areas of the body — your doctor may also press along the pinched nerve pathway to determine the extent of nerve compression.

Once your doctor has located the pinched nerve, he or she will likely order a medical imaging test for that area of the spine. This will help your doctor to accurately view your spinal anatomy so he or she can diagnose exactly what is causing your spinal narrowing and nerve compression. After a diagnosis is made, you can begin to discuss the treatment options available to you.

Treating spinal narrowing

Spinal narrowing can often be treated by several months of conservative therapy, which includes any form of nonsurgical treatment. Many doctors will recommend a combination of conservative treatments to help expedite your pain relief. Common options for conservative treatment include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Weight loss and lifestyle changes
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretches and yoga
  • Corticosteroid injections

If after several months of conservative treatment you have not noticed a decrease in your pain, your doctor may recommend spine surgery to help treat your spinal narrowing.

At Laser Spine Institute, our minimally invasive spine surgery helps treat the common spine conditions that lead to spinal narrowing. Our procedures offer lower risk of complication and shorter recovery times^ than traditional open spine procedures due to the smaller, muscle-sparing incision our surgeons use to approach the spine.

To learn more about our minimally invasive procedures, contact us today. We can provide you with a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery.