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Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis & How It's Diagnosed

Published January 12, 2018
Tags:  Diagnosing

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, but how do you find out if that is the cause of your back pain? You’ve been hearing a lot about spinal stenosis, and for good reason. This narrowing of the spinal canal affects 200,000 Americans each year. The spinal canal houses and protects the spinal cord, so when it narrows, it places pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. As you can imagine, this can lead to intense pain.

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?

Age. As we get older, our bones and joints enlarge and protrude outward, causing pain in the back and spine area. This is referred to as a bone spur. The tissue bands supporting the spine become brittle and heavy as we age, decreasing flexibility. These factors diminish the space in the spinal canal, which increases pressure on the nerves and can cause pain throughout the back and spine.

Arthritis. This degenerative disorder causes painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints. Two forms of arthritis can develop into spinal stenosis.

Osteoarthritis is the more frequent of the two and usually affects people who are middle-aged and above. Sadly, it doesn't go away and can affect multiple joints in your body at once. It diminishes the cartilage between bones necessary for maintaining healthy joints and creates bone spurs and continuous issues with overall mobility.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is more common in younger patients. According to the National Institute of Arthritis, this disorder is not a common cause of spinal stenosis but has been reported to turn into it in rare cases. Dr. Mark J. Spoonamore, an orthopedic surgeon at The University of Southern California Hospital in Los Angeles, California, said, “Localized swelling of rheumatoid synovial tissue can form, causing even more spinal cord compression, which usually results in significant joint pain, misalignment, stiffness, and instability causing spinal stenosis.”

Genetic Conditions. Numerous spine conditions at birth can develop into spinal stenosis. People born with a smaller spinal canal than normal may receive a spinal stenosis diagnosis later in life.

Other. If you were injured, suffered a trauma, or have a surplus of fluoride in your body, you may receive a spinal stenosis diagnosis. Paget’s disease-caused bone deformities in the spine can sometimes result in spinal stenosis. Contracting a tumor of the spine or calcium deposits running along your spine may also result in spinal stenosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

While some patients are asymptomatic, others experience intense pain and discomfort, including:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems with normal bladder or bowel function
  • Shooting pain running down the leg
  • Problems in the foot
  • Inability to perform sexual activities

How to Diagnosis Spinal Stenosis

If you have back pain with the presence of some of the aforementioned symptoms, consult your physician right away. Along with questions about your medical history and a physical exam, your doctor may order one or multiple tests for spinal stenosis.

X-Ray. This helps the doctor look for infection, tumors, and identifying problems with your spine’s alignment. In addition, an X-ray may display narrowed disc space, fractures, bone spurs, or osteoarthritis.

MRI. This test uses radio waves to view your spine and detect pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves.

CAT Scan. CAT scans are a series of X-rays that enable your physician to view a detailed image of your spine and any problem areas correlating to your pain.

Myelogram. In this examination, your doctor injects liquid dye into your spinal column to outline and detect any damage to your spinal cord and/or nerves.

Bone Scan. A doctor administers a shot of a radioactive substance displaying which bone is breaking down, where it's located, and why it's not working properly. If you are suffering from back pain, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. The back is a complex network of muscles, bones, nerves, ligaments, and tendons. The cause of pain in one area may be originating from a different region. Tell your physician all of your symptoms to ensure that you undergo relevant tests.

Last change: April 11, 2019