When you get up from a chair or take a walk, do you feel pain in your back, legs, shoulders, or arms? Do your arms or legs feel weaker than usual? If so, believe it or not, the problem could be in your spine, and the cause, a condition known as condition called spinal stenosis.
Your spine is the column of bones that runs up the center of your back. It not only helps you stay upright but also flexes to allow you to bend and twist. These bones are called vertebrae, which are separated by spongy disks that cushion the bones so they don't rub against each other.
As you get older, these spongy disks start to shrink, while the ligaments of your spine may swell up, due to arthritis. Together, these two actions narrow and put pressure on your spinal cord, or its exiting nerves, which is called spinal stenosis. You can also get spinal stenosis if you've had an injury like a slipped disk.
So, how is spinal stenosis diagnosed?
During an exam, your doctor will try to find the source of your pain or weakness by having you go through different motions. You'll sit, stand, walk, bend forward and backward, and lift your legs. The doctor will probably also test your reflexes with a rubber hammer, and use a feather or pin to see whether you've lost any feeling in feet and legs.
Although there are surgical procedures to relieve the pressure on your spinal cord, trying a few measures at home first can help you avoid surgery. Physical therapy will teach you exercises and stretches to strengthen your muscles and improve your range of motion. Massage and acupuncture can be helpful for relieving back and neck pain. Putting heat or ice on a painful area can also help. Or, your doctor may recommend taking anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving medications.
You can probably stay active with spinal stenosis, if you follow your doctor's recommendations and don't try to overdo it. Maybe you need to walk instead of jog, or play fewer holes on the golf course. If treatments at home don't work, surgery can often help relieve your symptoms, although it doesn't cure the condition and your pain may come back afterward.
One of the biggest worries with spinal stenosis is numbness. If you can't feel pain in your legs or feet, you may get injured and not even realize it. An untreated injury can lead to an infection. Make sure to call your doctor if you have any numbness, pain, or other symptoms of spinal stenosis, especially trouble balancing or difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement.
Take care of your spine. It's the only one you've got.
Review Date: 2/26/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.