As your body’s central support structure, your spine helps you sit, stand, walk, twist, and bend. Every component of a normal, healthy spinal column — from the vertebrae, facet joints, and discs to the spinal cord, nerves, and supporting soft tissues — work in concert to facilitate pain-free movement and range of motion.
Any injury, disorder, or disease that affects your spine can restrict your mobility and leave you with persistent back or neck pain. Two of the most common age-related spine conditions also happen to be interrelated: osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis.
Read on as fellowship-trained neurosurgeon and spine surgery specialist Jose Valerio, MD, discusses the link between arthritis and spinal stenosis.
What is spinal stenosis?
Stenosis is the term used to describe the abnormal narrowing of a body channel. Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces within the bony vertebral column become progressively narrower, gradually putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
To understand spinal stenosis, it’s helpful to know a bit about spine anatomy. The tunnel that runs through the center of your stacked vertebrae (spinal canal) protects the bundle of nerves that runs through it (spinal cord). The bony spinal canal essentially surrounds and protects the vulnerable and all-important spinal cord.
If this bony tunnel becomes narrower, however, it can push on the very structures it’s tasked with protecting: Your spinal cord and the various nerve roots that extend from your spinal cord to your muscles. In addition to shrinking the spinal canal, spinal stenosis can also narrow one or both of the following spinal structures:
- The bony canal at the base of nerve roots where they branch out from the spinal cord
- The open spaces between the vertebrae that nerves pass through to reach your body
While spinal stenosis can occur in any level of your spine, it’s most common in the lower back (lumbar spine) and neck (cervical spine). It rarely affects the mid-back region (thoracic spine).
Why does spinal stenosis occur?
The most common cause of spinal stenosis is the age-related condition called osteoarthritis. However, other factors that aren’t age-related can cause it, too.
Osteoarthritis is a joint disease in which tissues break down over time due to aging. This wear-and-tear disease can lead to spinal column narrowing through disc degeneration. It can also narrow the central spinal canal and nerve root channels by causing the enlargement or overgrowth of bone tissue.
As the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis typically begins in middle age and progresses as the years go on. Many older adults show signs of osteoarthritis in one or more of their joints.
A chronic, inflammatory form of arthritis called rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can also inflict the kind of spinal joint damage that leads to spinal stenosis. Less common than osteoarthritis, RA is an autoimmune disorder that prompts the immune system to attack healthy joint tissue.
It can be an inherited condition that’s present from birth, as is the case with congenital stenosis, or it can be the product of a childhood spine disorder, such as scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine).
Adolescents and young adults can develop spinal stenosis following a traumatic injury to the spine, such as a fractured vertebra.
Spine tumors can also narrow the spaces within the spine and lead to bone changes that cause stenosis.
Bone overgrowth from a chronic condition called Paget’s disease of bone can also lead to the development of spinal stenosis.
Is my back pain spinal stenosis?
In its early stages, spinal stenosis doesn’t usually cause symptoms. Most adults don’t know their spinal structures are narrowing until their spinal nerves are under considerable pressure.
When symptoms, such as lower back or neck pain, radiating leg or arm weakness, numbness, or tingling do appear, they tend to gradually worsen without treatment.
So, how can you tell if your chronic lower back or neck pain is a product of arthritis-related spinal stenosis? If your symptoms start around or after age 50, it’s a very real possibility — especially if you have signs of osteoarthritis in any of your other joints. Only a specialist, such as Dr. Valerio, can perform the kind of comprehensive spine evaluation that can let you know for sure.
While there’s no cure for spinal stenosis, there are a variety of treatment options that can help you effectively manage the condition, ranging from physical therapy exercises and epidural steroid injections to minimally invasive spinal decompression surgery (laminectomy).
If you have unexplained back or neck pain, we can help at one of our three offices in South Miami, Hialeah, and Weston, Florida. Book an appointment over the phone with the practice of Jose Valerio, MD, today.