Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of spaces in the spine that results in pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerve roots. The normal vertebral canal provides adequate room for the spinal cord. Narrowing of the canal, which occurs in spinal stenosis, may be inherited or acquired. Spinal stenosis is most common in people over 50, however, it may occur in younger people who are born with a narrowing of the spinal canal or who suffer an injury to the spine.   

Normal Vertebra (cross section) Small spinal canal

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis

If narrowing places pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, there may be a slow onset and progression of symptoms. More often, people experience numbness, weakness, cramping, or general pain in the arms or legs. If the narrowed space within the spine is pushing on a nerve root, people may feel pain radiating down the leg (sciatica).

Conventionial Treatments for Spinal Stenosis

In the absence of severe or progressive nerve involvement, a doctor may prescribe one or more of the following conservative treatments:

  • Nonsteroidal anti–inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen, or indomethacin, to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.1
  • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen, to relieve pain.
  • Corticosteroid injections into the outermost of the membranes covering the spinal cord and nerve roots to reduce inflammation and treat acute pain that radiates to the hips or down a leg.
  • Anesthetic injections, known as nerve blocks, near the affected nerve to temporarily relieve pain.
  • Restricted activity (varies depending on extent of nerve involvement).
  • Prescribed exercises and/or physical therapy to maintain motion of the spine, strengthen abdominal and back muscles, and build endurance, all of which help stabilize the spine. Some patients may be encouraged to try slowly progressive aerobic activity such as swimming or using exercise bicycles.
  • A lumbar brace or corset to provide some support and help the patient regain mobility. This approach is sometimes used for patients with weak abdominal muscles or older patients with degeneration at several levels of the spine.

Alternative Therapies for Spinal Stenosis

Alternative (or complementary) therapies are diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Some examples of these therapies used to treat spinal stenosis follow:

  • Chiropractic treatment. This treatment is based on the philosophy that restricted movement in the spine reduces proper function and may cause pain. Chiropractors may manipulate (adjust) the spine to restore normal spinal movement. They may also employ traction, a pulling force, to help increase space between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on affected nerves. Some people report that they benefit from chiropractic care. Research thus far has shown that chiropractic treatment is about as effective as conventional, nonoperative treatments for acute back pain.
  • Acupuncture. This treatment involves stimulating certain places on the skin by a variety of techniques, in most cases by manipulating thin, solid, metallic needles that penetrate the skin. Research has shown that low back pain is one area in which acupuncture has benefited some people.

More research is needed before the effectiveness of these or other possible alternative therapies can be definitively stated. Health care providers may suggest these therapies in addition to more conventional treatments.