What is Spinal Stenosis?
Back pain can have many causes, and spinal stenosis is one of them. In fact, an estimated 250,000-500,000 adults in the U.S. have spinal stenosis symptoms. Although more common in people over age 50, anyone can develop this condition. Pain is the primary symptom, but some people develop spinal stenosis and have no symptoms whatsoever. If you or a loved one is suffering from spinal stenosis, it’s important to understand the causes of spinal stenosis, the symptoms of spinal stenosis, and spinal stenosis natural remedies.
What is Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces between the vertebrae in your spine start to narrow and put pressure on your nerves. It typically affects the neck and lower back.
The condition primarily affects adults over the age of 60, but anyone can experience spinal stenosis. Some people are born with certain medical conditions that can cause lumbar spinal stenosis. In this case, the condition is called congenital spinal stenosis, and it’s most common in men. Symptoms don’t usually appear until age 30 or older.
There are a few different types of spinal stenosis:
- Lumbar (lower back).
- Cervical (neck).
- Central canal stenosis, which occurs when nerves in the spinal canal are compressed.
- Foraminal stenosis, which occurs when the nerve exiting the spinal column is compressed.
Some people develop both lumbar and cervical stenosis.
Causes of Spinal Stenosis
In most cases of lumbar stenosis, spinal stenosis is caused by arthritis, which causes degeneration of joints in the body.
Arthritis can affect the spine as well. As discs degenerate, they start losing their water content. Throughout most of our lives, the discs in our spines have high water content. But as we age, those discs start to weaken and dry out. When this happens, the spaces between the vertebrae narrows and may even collapse.
As the spine starts to settle, it transfers weight to your facet joints and there’s a narrowing of the spaces where the nerves exit. Increased pressure on the facet joints leads to degeneration and the development of arthritis.
Once that cartilage starts wearing away, the joints lose that cushioned protection. If it wears away completely, it can lead to bone rubbing on bone. The loss of cartilage causes the body to grow new bone to support your vertebrae. These are bony growths or bone spurs.
Some people are born with this condition (congenital spinal stenosis), but in most cases, the condition develops in people aged 50 and over.
For some people, spinal stenosis is a result of aging. Over the years, wear and tear on the spine can cause spinal stenosis.
Injuries or Trauma
Trauma or back injuries can lead to spinal stenosis. The symptoms don’t necessarily develop right away. It may be months or years before stenosis develops and starts causing noticeable discomfort.
Some medical disorders can also compress the nerves and lead to spinal stenosis, including:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Herniated or bulging discs
- Thickening of spinal ligaments
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
Those who suffer from spinal stenosis may experience a wide range of symptoms, including:
While back pain is one of the most common symptoms of spinal stenosis, not everyone will experience it.
When pain is experienced, it usually radiates from the spine into a leg or arm. In rare cases, it may radiate into both arms and legs. The severity of the pain can vary from a mild ache to a burning sensation or shock-like pain.
Those who suffer from cervical stenosis will experience neck pain instead of back pain.
Numbness or Tingling in the Lower Back and Legs
Increased pressure on the nerve can lead to tingling and numbness in the lower back and legs. Some people may also experience a burning pain sensation along with tingling and numbness.
Foot Drop or Weakness in the Legs
At some point, the pressure on the nerve will reach a breaking point, and this can lead to weakness in one or both of the legs. In severe cases, patients will develop foot drop.
Spinal stenosis can cause sciatica. All of that pressure on your spinal nerves eventually leads to pain. People often describe the pain as a burning or aching sensation. The pain can radiate from the buttocks down through the leg (the pathway of the sciatica nerve). Some people also develop pain in their feet.
Relief When Sitting or Bending Forward
Those who suffer from lumbar stenosis may feel relief when they sit down or bend forward. The reason they feel relief is because these movements increase the space between the vertebrae and give your nerves some room. It alleviates some of the pressure that’s causing your pain.
Spinal Stenosis Diagnosis
Diagnosing spinal stenosis is a multi-step process that starts with a review of your medical history and a physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will likely want to get a feel of your spine along your lower back and neck.
Your doctor may also check your spine’s range of motion as well as the reflexes, sensations, and strength of your arms or legs.
Sometimes, physical exam tests may be used to see if certain movements or positions cause pain or discomfort.
Your medical history and a physical exam may suggest that you have spinal stenosis. However, medical imaging will need to confirm the diagnosis. Doctors usually order an MRI for a spinal stenosis diagnosis, but a CT scan with myelography may be used if an MRI is not an option.
Complications of Spinal Stenosis
If spinal stenosis is left untreated, it can – in rare cases – progress and lead to permanent damage in the form of:
- Balance and coordination issues
Spinal Stenosis Natural Remedies
Conventional treatments, including pain medication and surgery, are available, but many people want to incorporate natural remedies into their treatment regimen. Common natural remedies for spinal stenosis include:
Naturally found in turmeric, curcumin is a compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Research shows that it may also help with arthritis and potentially spinal stenosis.
In one study, 139 people with symptoms of knee osteoarthritis were given either the NSAID diclofenac twice per day or curcumin three times daily. Among those who took curcumin, 94% reported at least a 50% improvement in symptoms. Those who took curcumin also reported fewer side effects compared to those who took the NSAID.
Like curcumin, fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its omega-3 fatty acids. Reducing inflammation may help with pain associated with spinal stenosis, particularly if it’s caused by arthritis.
Researchers at UCLA looked at the effects of omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric (together) on rats with a spinal cord injury. Their findings suggest that both of these supplements may help repair nerve cells and preserve neurological function caused by degenerative damage to the neck.
Massage therapy may offer immediate relief to those suffering from spinal stenosis. Massage helps by increasing circulation to your soft tissues while alleviating tension and improving your range of motion. Investing in monthly massages may help keep the pain at bay.
In one study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that massage therapy was effective for chronic back pain. These benefits lasted six months.
DMSO for nerve pain is still being studied, but there is evidence that some nerve pain sufferers find relief with DMSO.
A study in 2008 researched how DMSO affects spinal cord injury in rabbits. They found that DMSO has substantial neuroprotective properties.
Another study in British Columbia was conducted on numerous topical treatments to determine which substances can help the over 1 million Canadians suffering from neuropathic pain. The study found that capsaicin and lidocaine were able to provide relief for neuropathic pain. Researchers point to a 2013 study finding that low levels of pain relief exist when DMSO is applied. Even low levels of pain relief can lead to a significant improvement in the quality of life.
These studies suggest that DMSO could be beneficial in helping with pain caused by spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis can be a painful condition, but these natural remedies show promising results. Consistency in your treatment and making healthy lifestyle changes (regular exercise and a healthy diet) can further help provide relief.