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Spinal Stenosis

What is it?

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal – the space within the vertebrae for the nerves. Lumbar Spinal stenosis can be found in the last 5 bones of the lower back, most often at the bottom of the back

What Causes Lumbar Spinal Stenosis? Some patients are born with a narrowed spinal canal, but most often spinal stenosis is seen in patients over the age of 50. This is because the “wear and tear” process causes crowding of the spinal canal with overgrowth of the nearby bones (osteophytes), the ligaments thicken, a cyst may occur because of the joint inflammation and a disc may slip (herniate) into this space also. If there is a dynamic component to the narrowing, this is called Spondylolisthesis. When these conditions occur in the spinal area, they can cause the spinal canal to narrow, creating pressure on the spinal nerve.

Spinal Stenosis - Symptoms

The narrowing of the spinal canal itself does not usually cause any spinal stenosis symptoms. It is when inflammation of the nerves occurs at the level of increased pressure that patients begin to experience problems. Patients with lumbar spinal stenosis may feel pain, weakness, or numbness in the legs, calves or buttocks. In the lumbar spine, symptoms often increase when walking short distances and decrease when the patient sits, bends forward or lies down. This is the reason why patients with spinal stenosis also feel relief when they lean over a shopping trolley, bicycle or walking frame. In some patients, the pain starts in the legs and moves upward to the buttocks; in other patients, the pain begins higher in the body and moves downward. The pain may radiate like sciatica or may be a cramping pain. In severe cases, the pain can be constant.

Spinal Stenosis - Diagnosis

Most doctors use a combination of tools, including:

History The doctor will begin by asking the patient to describe any symptoms he or she is having and how the symptoms have changed over time. These symptoms include:

  • leg or buttock pain while walking

  • stooping forward to relieve symptoms

  • feeling relief when using a shopping cart or bicycle

  • muscle weakness or numbness while walking

  • low back pain

Physical Examination The doctor will then examine the patient by checking for any limitations of movement in the spine, problems with balance and signs of pain. The doctor will also look for any loss of arm or leg reflexes, muscle weakness, loss of touch, or abnormal reflexes which may suggest spinal cord involvement.

Tests After examining the patient, the doctor can use a variety of tests to look at the inside of the body. Examples of these tests include:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) – this is the least invasive but can often take about 45mins of lying still in a tunnel

  • CT Scan (Computerized axial tomography) – to further evaluate the bones.

  • X-rays – these tests can show the structure of the vertebrae and the outlines of joints and when performed erect then shows the spinal alignment.

Spinal Stenosis - Treatment

The range of treatment options, and the risks and benefits of each should be discussed with your doctor. This will take into account any other health problems that might have an effect on the risks and benefits. Mobility is generally good for the spine. Leaning forward often relieves some of the symptoms. Pushing a supermarket trolley may be easier than just standing. An exercise bike may help maintain fitness and reduce the risk of weight gain. Some patients find an all-terrain rollator frame useful for mobility and independence.

Non-Surgical treatment

Medications The three main groups that are helpful for pain, either alone or in combination are:

  • Non-Steroidal Anti- Inflammatory Drugs (N.S.A.I.D)

  • Neuropathic pain medications

  • Simple analgesics

Some medications have a high risk of harm and are not recommended, these would include strong opiate painkillers and diazepam type medications.

Exercise treatment There are no specific exercise treatments for spinal stenosis. However, it is important to keep yourself fit and to keep as active as possible. Whatever exercise you enjoy and doesn’t cause too much discomfort is good for you. Cycling (e.g. on an exercise bike) can be very useful because the flexed position on the bike can give some relief of leg symptoms and is often an exercise tolerated well in spinal stenosis.

Injections These can be helpful for pain that is going down the leg. They do not seem to be helpful for back pain.

Surgical Treatment

Surgical treatment should be discussed as part of shared decision-making with your Doctor. It is usually a ‘quality of life’ decision and would only rarely need emergency treatment.

The most common operation is a simple decompression. This surgery will involve removing some bone to widen the spinal canal to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. If required, a fusion may be done as part of the operation to decompress the nerves. This may involve a bone graft and metal screws and rods to stabilise the spine. Large studies on the outcomes of surgery for spinal stenosis have shown that early results such as quality of life, satisfaction with symptoms and self-rated progress were improvements that lasted over a long time after surgery.

The results of surgery are good with many patients experiencing useful improvements in walking distance and leg pain. There are some risks with spinal surgery. Patients are advised to discuss all treatment options with their Doctor.

Minimally invasive options are also available such an endoscopic approach to decompress the spinal canal with a less painful and faster recovery

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1 Comment

Barbara Hoyle
Barbara Hoyle
Nov 08, 2022

Michael Hoyle, thank you for your presentation that explains spinal stenosis. My MRI indicates that lumbar 4 and 5 have 47% reduced nerve space. I will be in contact.

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