What is Spinal Stenosis and How is It Treated?

What is Spinal Stenosis and How is It Treated?
By Jason C. Tinley, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon on staff at USMD Hospital at Fort Worth. 

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, typically in the neck or low back, that can cause radiating pain, weakness, burning, or numbness and tingling in the arms, hands, legs, or feet. The symptoms can come on slowly and get worse as the spine degenerates, or come on rapidly after an injury.

What else could cause these symptoms?

Other common causes of these symptoms are neuropathy from diabetes or alcohol, electrolyte imbalance, or vascular issues. Typically, your primary care physician can determine the cause and refer you to the right specialist if necessary.

What do I have to do to get diagnosed? 

We’ll collect your medical history and perform a physical exam. Afterwards, we may use X-rays and MRI to assess the extent of the disease – but you can probably avoid an MRI if your symptoms haven’t lasted longer than six weeks.

Can I avoid surgery?

Given enough time and effort, nonsurgical treatments are often all you need. In many cases, flare-ups will go away on their own within two weeks; short courses of anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, or pain medications can help calm the pain. You can also talk to your doctor about trying physical therapy or steroid injections before considering surgery – both often have good results.

Low back and neck pain are common, so there are many treatment options – but some options (even some expensive ones) lack valid research. Make sure you get evaluated by a qualified specialist, like one recommended by your primary care physician, before you seek treatment – especially if you have weakness or radiating pain.

What if I do need surgery?

If your test results and symptoms are significant, surgery has undeniably excellent results. Surgery should minimize the disruption of the normal bony and muscular architecture of your spine, and fusion of the bones should be performed only if you have instability or severe deformity.

There are many less invasive options available today that seem to be improving speed of recovery, though these techniques are still relatively new and haven’t yet been proven by years of history.

How can I avoid spinal stenosis altogether?

We know that people with diabetes, smokers, and obese individuals have worse symptoms and a harder time healing, but all of these conditions are avoidable. By eating smart, moving more, and avoiding tobacco, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing spinal stenosis and many other conditions.

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