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What is Spinal Stenosis?


What is spinal stenosis? A clue to answering this question is found in the meaning of each word. Spinal refers to the spine. Stenosis is a medical term used to describe a condition where a normal-size opening has become narrow.

Spinal stenosis may affect the cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), or lumbar (lower back) spines. The most commonly area affected is the lumbar spine followed by the cervical spine. 

What Does Spinal Stenosis Look Like?

To help you to visualize what happens in spinal stenosis, we will consider a water pipe. Over time, rust and debris builds up on the walls of the pipe, thereby narrowing the passageway that normally allows water to freely flow.

In the spine, the passageways are the spinal canal and the neuroforamen. The spinal canal is a hollow vertical hole that contains the spinal cord. The neuroforamen are the passageways that are naturally created between the vertebrae through which spinal nerve roots exit the spinal canal.

The spine's bony structures encase and protect the spinal cord. Small nerve roots shoot off from the spinal cord and exit the spinal canal through passageways called neuroforamen.

Those are the basics of spinal anatomy related to spinal stenosis, but to better understand this spine condition, it helps to get a quick lesson in overall spinal anatomy.

Vertebrae and Spinal Regions

The spine is a column of connected bones called vertebrae. There are 24 vertebrae in the spine, plus the sacrum and tailbone (coccyx). Most adults have 7 vertebrae in the neck (the cervical vertebrae), 12 from the shoulders to the waist (the thoracic vertebrae), and 5 in the lower back (the lumbar vertebrae). The sacrum is made up of 5 vertebrae between the hipbones that are fused into one bone. The coccyx is made up of small fused bones at the tail end of the spine.

The Lamina and Spinous Processes

At the back (posterior) of each vertebra, you have the lamina, a bony plate that protects your spinal canal and spinal cord. Your vertebrae also have several bony tabs that are called spinous processes; those processes are attachment points for muscles and ligaments.

Ligaments, Especially the Ligamentum Flavum

Vertebrae are connected by ligaments, which keep the vertebrae in their proper place.

The ligamentum flavum is a particularly important ligament. Not only does it help stabilize your spine, it also protects your spinal cord and nerve roots. Plus, the ligamentum flavum is the strongest ligament in your spine.

The ligamentum flavum is a dynamic structure, which means that it adapts its shape as you move your body. When you're sitting down and leaning forward, the ligamentum flavum is stretched out; that gives your spinal canal more room for the spinal nerves.

When you stand up and lean back, though, the ligamentum flavum becomes shorter and thicker; that means there's less room for the spinal nerves. (This dynamic capability helps explain why people with spinal stenosis find that sitting down feels better than standing or walking.)

In between each vertebra are tough fibrous shock-absorbing pads called the intervertebral discs. Each disc is made up of a tire-like outer band (annulus fibrosus) and a gel-like inner substance (nucleus pulposus).

Spinal Nerves and the Spinal Cord

Nerves are also an important part of your spinal anatomy—after all, they're what sends messages from your brain to the rest of your body. The spinal cord, the thick bundle of nerves that extends downward from the brain, passes through a ring in each vertebra. Those rings line up into a channel called the spinal canal.

Between each vertebra, two nerves branch out of the spinal cord (one to the right and one to the left). Those nerves exit the spine through openings called the foramen and travel to all parts of your body.

Normally, the spinal channel is wide enough for the spinal cord, and the foramen are wide enough for the nerve roots. But either or both can become narrowed—that'd be the spinal stenosis—and lead to pain, as explained above.

Common Spinal Stenosis Questions

What is spinal stenosis?

In Greek, stenosis means "a narrowing." Spinal stenosis, then, is a narrowing of your spinal canal—the area your spinal cord and nerves travels through. When this area becomes narrower, your spinal cord and nerves can get pinched and squeezed. Doctors often call this squeezing "compression."

What's causing my spinal stenosis?

Most often, spinal stenosis is the result of disease or injury to the spine. The leading cause of spinal stenosis is wear and tear on the spine due to aging. In fact, the most common direct cause of spinal stenosis is osteoarthritis, where the cartilage that cushions joints starts to degenerate due to age. Some patients are genetically more prone to stenosis. They may have more osteoarthritis in their family.

Other causes of spinal stenosis are bulging discs, herniated discs, or injury to the spine.

Some people are born with spinal stenosis (congential spinal stenosis), but that is very uncommon.

Read an article all about spinal stenosis causes.

What are some non-surgical ways to treat spinal stenosis?
There are many non-surgical treatment options for you as you deal with spinal stenosis.

  • You can try acupuncture or massage, alternative treatment options that some patients have found helpful.
  • You can do some easy exercising to strengthen the muscles around your spine so that it's better supported—that could help reduce the pain. Swimming is a good form of exercise for people with spinal stenosis.
  • You can use over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that will help reduce the inflammation and pain. NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), indomethacin, and naproxen.
  • Your doctor may send you to physical therapy.
  • If you have a severe case of spinal stenosis, your doctor may use an epidural steroid injection into the area around your spinal cord and nerve roots. An injection puts anti-inflammatory medicine into the epidural space to decrease the inflammation of the nerve roots.

Read our article on all spinal stenosis non-surgical treatments.

Will I need surgery to relieve my spinal stenosis?
Most patients with spinal stenosis respond well to non-surgical treatments, so you may not have to have surgery. However, there are situations when you may want to go ahead with spine surgery.

  • You've tried non-surgical treatments, and they haven't been successful.
  • You've been in severe pain for a lengthy period of time.
  • You're experiencing radiculopathy, which is a medical term used to describe pain, numbness, and tingling in the arms or legs.
  • You've lost sensation in your arms or legs.
  • You have decreased motor strength in your arms or legs.
  • You've lost bowel or bladder control.

What kinds of surgery are used for spinal stenosis?
Typically, surgeons use 2 surgical techniques for spinal stenosis surgery.

  • Decompression, where they remove tissue pressing against a nerve structure by making more room in the spinal canal (for the spinal cord) or in the foramen (for the nerve roots). Some common decompression surgeries are: foraminotomy, laminectomy, and laminotomy.
  • Stabilization, where they work to limit motion between vertebrae.

Not everyone who has surgery for spinal stenosis will need stabilization, which is also known as spinal fusion. The need for stabilization depends mainly on how unstable your spine is.

Read an article focused on spinal stenosis surgery procedures.

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