Understanding Spinal Stenosis

From professional athletes to everyone else, it’s a condition that doesn’t discriminate.

I was recently interviewed by a publication regarding the topic of spinal stenosis – in this case, regarding New York Mets’ David Wright announcing his retirement from the painful effects of this condition for years. Yes, even the pros can be benched by spinal conditions, and whether or not you’re an elite athlete, no one wants to be sidelined from life by back pain. Here’s what to know about spinal stenosis so that you can stay in the game.

Medical conditions can sound much more ominous than they might actually be, just because they have unusual names. Spinal stenosis is one such condition. It merely refers to a narrowing of the space within the spinal canal or surrounding the nerves of the spine. This spinal narrowing can be caused by many things, most commonly osteoarthritis. Every person experiences some degree of spinal contraction when they stand up and walk. But in the case of spinal stenosis, this chronic narrowing can affect the surrounding nerves, and that’s what causes pain and other symptoms. Interestingly, however, some people have spinal stenosis right now and don’t even know it because they aren’t experiencing any of the adverse symptoms that can accompany the condition in some individuals.

Spinal stenosis mostly happens in the lower back or in the neck and as previously mentioned, is typically caused by osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, which mainly refers to the culmination of all the wear and tear on the spine and its structures throughout one’s lifetime. It’s seen most often in older adults, though younger people can develop it too. Sometimes, people are born with a narrower spinal canal than others, and so spinal stenosis can develop as a result. Other causes can also include herniated discs, spinal tumors and other spinal injuries that affect the nerves of the spine.

In most people who develop symptoms as a result of spinal stenosis, they begin gradually and depend primarily upon where on the spine the stenosis is taking place. When stenosis is present in the cervical spine, or neck, the symptoms can include neck pain, numbness and tingling in the arm, hand or fingers on the affected side. When it’s in the lower back, called the lumbar spine, a general feeling of low back pain or cramping of the buttocks or thighs can be the first signals of the condition. It can also develop into numbness, tingling or weakness in the lower extremities, and in the most severe cases, can result in a loss of bladder or bowel function.

While every individual and circumstance is unique, spinal stenosis is a very treatable condition for the most part and is mostly based on the symptoms being experienced. Because the pain associated with it can make itself known when people stand or walk for long enough periods of time, sitting down and resting for a bit is often the quickest way to relief. For mild to moderate pain that comes and goes, many people find comfort from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and physical therapy designed to help with exercises that encourage stretching of the spinal muscles. In severe cases, or when moderate treatments have failed to provide relief, and the stenosis is interfering with the ability to live a healthy, active daily life, surgery may be indicated. Surgery for spinal stenosis is not the norm, but is designed to repair whatever is causing the narrowing of the spinal space.

While there’s nothing any of us can do to stop the hands of time, there is plenty you can do today to stave off degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis. That can later result in spinal stenosis. And the good news is, you likely know what these things are. For starters, eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables can provide your body the nutrients it will continue to need for strong, healthy bones. Maintaining a healthy body weight and regular, weight-bearing exercise are also bone strengthening activities that can help stave off spinal degeneration as you age. But I bet you already knew these things were good for you.

The trouble with degenerative spine conditions is that they rarely happen overnight and many people just learn to adapt and “live with them.” Don’t. Don’t settle for being in pain or for a less-than-active lifestyle. Do what you can now to avoid these conditions and if you are experiencing any type of pain, please see a doctor to get to the bottom of what’s causing it. Often a minor fix can put you back on the road to healthy living in no time flat.




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