Few people appreciate the usefulness of their spine until it can no longer function properly.
The spine — a row of 33 bones in the back — is an incredibly useful machine, enabling someone to stand, walk and carry out daily tasks. However, the spine stops being a tool and becomes a hindrance when spinal stenosis occurs. Spinal stenosis is caused by a narrowing of the spinal canal, joints and bones surrounding the spinal cord and nerve roots. The condition causes pain and functional impairment.
Many Americans can be born with spinal stenosis, but the majority will get it as a natural part of the aging process. A person is at the greatest risk of developing spinal stenosis after they pass 50 years of age. Those who do acquire the condition experience a significant change in their quality of life, said Michael Verdon, DO, a neurosurgeon with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute.
“Symptoms can cause someone to find it difficult to write or walk for a long period of time,” Dr. Verdon said. “For example, some individuals may have to grab a shopping cart to lean on when they go into a supermarket.”
Spinal stenosis can occur at any point on a person’s spine, but the most common areas are the cervical (upper) and lumbar (lower) areas of the spine. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the number of Americans with spinal stenosis in the lumbar area is expected to grow over the next five years as the Baby Boomers age. It is estimated that 2.4 million Americans will be affected by lumbar spinal stenosis by 2021, the AAOS said.
The development of spinal stenosis is typically a very slow process, which is why many individuals do not notice its effect until months later, Dr. Verdon said.
“The symptoms can be so subtle that the patients typically don’t see themselves being limited,” he said. “They tend to limit themselves because of the pain, but not until later do they realize their functional activities have decreased. Over time, they have stopped doing their normal activities such as going to church or the supermarket.”
Dr. Verdon said spinal stenosis can be treated in three different ways. The first approach is conservative and involves physical therapy and chiropractic manipulation. The second approach involves more invasive therapies such as spinal injections and epidural steroids. The last line of treatment would include surgery, where a surgeon would open up the areas where the spinal cord and nerve roots are being compressed. This is done by taking away bone or ligaments or widening the spinal canal to allow the nerves and spinal cord to move freely.
According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the most common symptoms of spinal stenosis include pain in the neck and back; numbness, weakness, cramping or pain in the arms or legs; pain going down the leg; and foot problems. A serious form of spinal stenosis called cauda equina syndrome places pressure on the nerves in the lower back resulting in additional – and life-altering – symptoms such as loss of control of the bowel or bladder and problems having intercourse.
According to The American College of Rheumatology, there is no cure for spinal stenosis, but there are steps individuals can take to lessen symptoms and feel better:
Get moving – Make regular exercise a priority by scheduling it at least three times a week for 30 minutes each time. Begin slowly with flexion-based (forward-bending) exercises. Graduate to walking or swimming when the body becomes stronger and is at a place where it can handle more.
Re-evaluate daily activity – Make wise choices about what type of activities require back strength. Don’t do anything that can trigger or worsen pain or cause disability such as lifting heavy objects or walking long distances.
Consult a physician – Partner with a physician as early as possible. Discuss options for treatment such as medication or alternative therapies such as acupuncture or massage therapy that may help lessen the pain.
Explore non-surgical options – Look for ways to lessen the pain before considering surgery. This is an option except for rare cases when pain, weakness and numbness come on quickly.
For more information on spinal stenosis or to find a Premier Health Specialists physician near you, visit www.premierhealthspecialists.com.
ABOUT PREMIER HEALTH SPECIALISTS: Premier Health Specialists is one of the largest groups of specialty care practices in Southwest Ohio. More than 130 physicians serve patients in a variety of specialties such as bariatrics, breast care, burn and wound, cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery, cardiovascular-thoracic surgery, general surgery, gynecologic oncology, hand and reconstructive surgery, infectious diseases, maternal-fetal medicine, neurosciences, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedic surgery, orthopedic spine surgery, ophthalmology, palliative care, physiatry, plastic surgery, podiatry, psychology, pulmonology, sports medicine and urology. Premier Health Specialists is part of Premier Health, which includes Miami Valley Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital Dayton, Atrium Medical Center and Upper Valley Medical Center. For more information, visit http://www.premierhealthspecialists.org.