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Spinal Canal Stenosis

What is spinal canal stenosis?

Spinal canal stenosis is a condition caused by narrowing of the spinal canal due to excess bone growth or tissue such as cartilage. The spine is narrowed in one or more of three parts:

  • The space at the centre of the spine
  • The canals where nerves branch out from the spine
  • The space between vertebrae (the bones of the spine)

Spinal stenosis is most common in men and women over 50 years old. Younger people who were born with a narrow spinal canal or who hurt their spines may also get spinal stenosis.

What are the causes of spinal canal stenosis?

  • Aging
  • Osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Congenital conditions
  • Tumours of the spine
  • Injuries
  • Paget's disease (a disease that affects the bones)
  • Too much fluoride in the body
  • Calcium deposits on the ligaments that run along the spine

What are the symptoms of spinal canal stenosis?

There may be no symptoms of spinal stenosis, or symptoms may appear slowly and get worse over time. Signs of spinal stenosis include:

  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Numbness, weakness, cramping, or pain in the arms or legs
  • Pain going down the leg
  • Foot problems

One type of spinal stenosis, cauda equine syndrome, is a very serious condition that requires immediate medical intervention. This type occurs when there is pressure on nerves in the lower back. Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of control of the bowel or bladder
  • Problems having sex
  • Pain, weakness, or loss of feeling in one or both legs

If you have any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor right away.

How is spinal canal stenosis diagnosed?

To diagnose spinal stenosis, your doctor will ask about your medical history and conduct a physical exam. Your doctor may also order one or more tests, such as:

  • X rays
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a test that uses radio waves to look at your spine
  • Computerized axial tomography (CAT) - a series of x rays that give your doctor a detailed image of your spine
  • Myelogram - a test in which the doctor injects liquid dye into your spinal column
  • Bone scan - a test in which you are given a shot of radioactive substance that shows where bone is breaking down or being formed

How is spinal canal stenosis managed?

Conservative Treatment Options

There are many nonsurgical treatments for spinal stenosis. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Medicines to reduce swelling
  • Medicines to relieve pain
  • Limits on your activity
  • Exercises and/or physical therapy
  • A brace for your lower back

Surgery

Your doctor will likely suggest nonsurgical treatment first unless you have:

  • Symptoms that get in the way of walking
  • Problems with bowel or bladder function
  • Problems with your nervous system

Your doctor will take many factors into account in deciding if surgery is right for you. These include:

  • The success of nonsurgical treatments
  • The extent of the pain
  • Your preferences

  • Australian Medical Association
  • Neurosurgical Society of Australasia
  • The Sydney Children Hospitals Network
  • Sydney Adventist Hospital
  • Norwest Private Hospital
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons