Spinal stenosis describes a narrowing of the spinal canal. Spinal stenosis can result from natural aging, trauma, or diseases.
Untreated spinal stenosis will likely produce symptoms. These effects could range from occasional pain to permanent disability.
Here is some information about spinal stenosis and the dangers when it goes undiagnosed.
How Does Spinal Stenosis Happen?
Most adults have 24 vertebrae in their spines. Each vertebra consists of a cylindrical body and several wing-shaped processes. The body and processes form an opening. The openings of the vertebrae align to form the spinal canal.
The spinal cord passes through the spinal canal. The spinal cord contains the nerves that connect the brain with the body.
Spinal stenosis happens when the spinal canal narrows. The narrowing of the spinal canal can pinch nerves in the spinal cord.
Causes of Spinal Stenosis
Spinal stenosis has many causes, including:
- Damaged discs
- Fractured vertebrae
- Bone disease
Spinal stenosis can happen for reasons unrelated to injuries. For example, natural wear and tear could cause the vertebrae to shift out of position or grow bone spurs.
But trauma can also cause spinal stenosis. A back injury or repetitive stress in the workplace can lead to osteoarthritis and create back inflammation. The inflamed tissue can swell and pinch the spinal cord.
Trauma can damage the discs between the vertebrae. A herniated disc happens when the gel-like interior of the disc protrudes through the fibrous exterior of the disc. The protrusion can press on the spinal cord.
A bulging disc occurs when a disc compresses to form a barrel shape rather than its normal cylinder shape. The bulge can press on the spinal cord.
A fractured vertebra can also cause spinal stenosis. A fractured process can allow the vertebrae to slip out of place and press on the spinal cord. Bone fragments from a fractured body can even migrate into the spinal canal and pinch the nerves.
What are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis produces symptoms when the narrowed section pinches the spinal cord.
Some common symptoms of spinal cord damage include:
- Numbness or tingling
- Loss of coordination
- Muscle weakness
The location of the stenosis will determine where you feel your symptoms. Spinal stenosis in the cervical spine — the seven vertebrae in your neck — can produce symptoms in your shoulders, chest, arms, hands, and fingers.
Spinal stenosis in the lumbar spine can produce symptoms in your toes, feet, legs, hips, and abdomen. For example, spinal stenosis in your lumbar spine could cause weakness in your legs and a loss of bladder control.
What is the Treatment for Spinal Stenosis?
Doctors can usually treat spinal stenosis, depending on the cause. Injections of anesthetics or anti-inflammatories into the spinal canal can relieve the symptoms. But these treatments might only provide temporary relief.
When the symptoms result from a bulging or herniated disc, doctors can remove the disc and fuse the adjacent vertebrae. This can relieve the pressure on the nerves and stabilize the back. But you will probably lose flexibility in the region. The fused vertebrae will also shift stress to the adjacent vertebrae, increasing the wear and tear on them.
If the stenosis results from bone fragments or bone spurs, a surgeon might remove them. But doctors sometimes recommend against surgery if the risk of damaging the spinal cord during surgery seems high.
Dangers of Undiagnosed Spinal Stenosis
Undiagnosed spinal stenosis equates to untreated spinal stenosis. In many cases, you will simply experience pain and other nerve problems from undiagnosed spinal stenosis.
But in some cases, undiagnosed spinal stenosis can lead to permanent damage to the spinal cord. Bone fragments or bone spurs might eventually sever or fray the nerves.
Doctors have no cure for severed or permanently damaged nerves. As a result, you could suffer from permanent paralysis and loss of sensation.
If you experience any symptoms associated with spinal stenosis, you should seek medical assistance. Treatment could reduce the risk of permanent nerve damage. It will also help you document your injury if it was caused by someone else’s actions.