We’ve all experienced that sudden sharp ache in our backs whenever we bend to pick something up or try to lift heavy weights (especially if we don’t do it correctly). In most cases, the pain sensation is caused by a minor muscle or ligament strain and will get better on its own. However, that aching back can be an indication of a more serious health problem, especially if you’re in your 50s or older.
Between 8 and 11 percent of the US population currently suffer from lumbar spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal canal becomes narrowed and causes the compression of the spinal cord and nerves. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the number of Americans suffering from lumbar spinal stenosis is expected to increase considerably over the next five years as the 78 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964 age. By 2021, it is estimated that about 2.4 million people will be affected by this condition.
Though a small number of Americans are born with spinal stenosis, the condition usually develops in response to the degenerative process of aging. As people age, the ligaments of the spine start to thicken and calcify, while the bones and joints may begin to enlarge and impinge on the spinal canal. The condition is worsened and sometimes caused by other conditions specific to old age, such as osteoarthritis, spinal disc herniation, and the presence of infection.
Spinal stenosis can occur in any part of a person’s spine, but the most common areas are:
- The canal in the center of the spine, which holds the spinal cord and the nerve roots
- The canals at the bottom of nerves that exit the spinal cord
- The small openings (called foramina) between the vertebrae through which the nerves travel to specific parts of the body
The development of the disease is a very slow process, and many individuals don’t notice its effect immediately. Most of them start limiting themselves as a way to decrease the pain, but will acknowledge the fact that their functional activities have decreased only months later. The most common symptoms include pain in the cervical and lumbar areas, numbness, weakness, and pain in the arms and legs. If the narrowing of the space inside the spinal canal causes pressure on a nerve root, patients can experience pain going down the leg.
In severe cases, individuals may also experience issues with their bowel and bladder function and various foot problems. A serious but extremely rare form of spinal stenosis, called the cauda equina syndrome, can result in additional – and often, life-altering – symptoms such as complete loss of control of the bowel and bladder, as well as sexual dysfunction and/or loss of feeling in the legs.
Safe and Effective Treatment Options for Spinal Stenosis
Typical treatment options for spinal stenosis can be divided into non-operative, conservative, and operative care. Spinal stenosis is a chronic condition that cannot be cured, only improved, but the improvement can be maintained over the long term. Most doctors encourage patients to exhaust all non-operative options before considering spinal intervention, which rarely has fully satisfactory results.
Non-invasive conservative care such as chiropractic and acupuncture can significantly lessen pain and discomfort, allowing patients to maintain normal range of motion and participate in the activities of normal living and family life. Techniques such as gentle chiropractic adjustments, spinal decompression therapy, and traction methods provide relief from pain without the side effects of drugs or the risks of surgery.
A special technique called flexion distraction is used by licensed chiropractors to undo nerve pressure and disc compression in order to provide significant relief from leg pain and discomfort. Specialized chiropractors can also prescribe stretching and strengthening exercises aimed to improve muscle strength in the lumbar and abdominal areas. Performing flexion-based (forward-bending) exercises at least three times a week, as well as walking, swimming, and bicycling, have been shown effective at reducing symptoms and improving range of motion.
You shouldn’t let spinal stenosis disrupt your life and potentially put you at an increased risk for acute neurological injury. If you are searching for alternatives to medication or surgery for symptomatic relief from lumbar spinal stenosis, your local chiropractor can address your concerns and recommend the best course of treatment for your specific condition. Being a degenerative condition, the sooner you look for help, the quicker you will be able to resume your normal lifestyle with minimum pain and discomfort.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.