As we age, so do our spines. That is why many weekend warriors start to feel the aches and pains of activities such as exercising, yard work or even chores around the house soon after they are over. Some people chalk it up to the normal wear and tear of life when, in fact, it could be a much more serious condition called spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of the spinal canal.
This type of condition is not uncommon. About 95 percent of the population will experience some form of degenerative spinal condition by age 50. In contrast to other forms of degenerative joint disease, spinal degeneration is often asymptomatic. Spinal stenosis is common for those age 60 or older, but women appear more likely to require some form of corrective treatment. Treatment is sometimes needed because as this narrowing occurs, it may cause pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots which may lead to feelings of pain, numbness, cramping or weakness in the legs and/or shoulders.
Spinal stenosis may be inherited, or it may develop over time. If inherited, genetic factors such as a smaller spinal canal, scoliosis or abnormal bone formations may lead to a spinal stenosis diagnosis. In more common cases, spinal stenosis is a degenerative disease brought on by age. Enlarged ligaments, bulging discs, poor alignment, past injuries, arthritis, tumors or bone spurs may produce pressure on nerve roots or the spinal cord itself causing symptoms to occur.
A physician can identify whether or not you have the condition through a physical examination, by analyzing family history and using imaging such as X-rays. Treatment often includes anti-inflammatory medications, injections to minimize pain, a modification in activity, exercises and physical therapy.
In some instances, if non-operative treatment is not effective, surgery may be required. This may be an option for those who do not respond to earlier treatment or if their condition interferes with crucial everyday activities like walking, bladder or bowel function or other individual issues. Surgical techniques may include removing affected areas to relieve pressure or to re-establish alignment of the spine. Discuss with your physician which option is best for you.
Dr. Paul Matz is a neurosurgeon at St. Luke's Hospital. To take a free spine risk assessment, visit St. Luke's HealthAware Risk Assessments page.
This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 8, 2013.