Spinal Stenosis: What is It and What To Do About It

To understand spinal stenosis, you have to consider how the human body develops as an embryo.

When you look at the bony vertebral column that makes up your skeleton, you’ll see a naturally formed hole in the structure of the bones of the spine that is where the spinal cord resides.  This is called the intervertebral foramen or IVF.

As you developed from a fertilized egg, your nervous system took on a structure that was programmed in your DNA. The nervous system developed a brain and nervous system. Nerve cells sprouted and formed nerves while the vertebrae formed and developed as well.

Later on in life, aging attacks the spine as well as the rest of the body. The bones develop calcifications, which make them thicker at certain spots of the bones. This could be due to arthritis.  If the thickening occurs at a place very close to the hole where the nerve exits the spinal cord, the nerve can easily become compressed, which irritates it, and causes inflammation.

If a nerve is inflamed, then it is larger, and if the foramen is already being closed down by bony calcifications, there is trouble ahead.

Whenever the spinal nerves and nerve roots are compressed or squeezed, spinal stenosis results. However, the compression must occur inside the spinal canal where the spinal nerves come down vertically from the brain.

Spinal Stenosis Versus Pinched Nerve

Often people wonder what the difference is between spinal stenosis and a pinched nerve. In a pinched nerve, the compression is outside the spinal canal, and in fact, may be anywhere along the route of that nerve – close to where it first leaves the spinal canal or at the furthest point.

Why Spinal Stenosis (and Pinched Nerve) Causes Symptoms

When the nerve is compressed, whether it is due to spinal stenosis or pinched nerve, your body will experience symptoms that are not pleasant. Some of these symptoms include:

• numbness in a particular body part that is “fed” by the nerve

• weakness

• tingling

• burning

• loss of bowel and bladder control if the nerve that is affected normally innervates the bowel and bladder

• feeling of ants crawling in a certain location

The symptoms occur because the nerve is irritated. A nerve may be one of two types of nerves:  a sensory nerve or a motor nerve. Sensory nerves send messages to the brain from the skin that allows us to feel different sensations. Motor nerves carry messages away from the brain. Their purpose is to allow the muscles to move.

Spinal stenosis is diagnosed definitively with a combination of MRI and EMG (Link to Standard Medical Care).

It Doesn’t Take Much Pressure to Cause Negative Changes

Research at the University of Colorado found that it only took between 8 to 10 mm of compression pressure – a little bigger than the eraser on a pencil – to reduce the nerve supply by up to 60%. This very slight pressure can actually alter the quality or the quantity of the messages that are sent by the nerve.

Compression pressure can also rob the muscles and tissues that the nerve “feeds”. In other words, if your big toe is “fed” by a nerve that is compressed in the spinal canal by 8 to 10 mm, you could lose up to 60% of the feeling in the big toe with compression.  Since compression alters the nerve message, you could have the feeling of ants – called paresthesias – along the nerve anywhere down its path to the big toe.

The message the nerve sends could be altered – it could be slowed down or distorted. This can result in feelings of tingling or burning or even cold sensations. If it’s a motor nerve that is affected, the symptoms you feel could be muscle weakness, resulting in you not being able to lift your big toe. This could affect your walking.

What To Do about Spinal Stenosis

When you have spinal stenosis, it’s important to take the compression off the nerve to allow it to heal. How much of a calcification buildup there is at the intervertebral foramen, or how much closure of the foramen that there is will determine the need for surgery.

Your medical doctor may give you steroids to decrease the inflammation. However, taking steroids is a double-edged sword, as it will decrease the collagen levels in your skin and muscles. If used for long periods of time, this can end up contributing to a further cycle of decline.

Self-Help for Spinal Stenosis

If the level is mild, there are things you can do on your own to help. For example, here’s a list of some methods that can work for self-treatment:

• Chiropractic Care – relieves the symptoms by relieving the inflammation of the nerve causing the stenosis, which allows the rest of the body to receive the nerve messages once again

• Massage Therapy – Working on trigger points throughout the body helps to restore proper blood circulation to them. If muscles develop trigger points, pain will always result, if not sooner, then later.

• Yoga  – Different yoga postures will improve your flexibility, joint range of motion and help decrease spasticity. However, some yoga postures may increase your symptoms, so do make sure you find a very knowledgeable yoga teacher who can carefully choose the postures that will help your condition.

• Posture Improvement  – Something as simple as posture improvement can make a big difference in the symptoms you may be feeling from stenosis – or a pinched nerve. Often, we do not sit up straight, slouching at our desk or feeling as if we don’t have the energy to straighten our posture. However, slouching and other bad postures will put more pressure on the nerve that is affected by stenosis. It’s never too late to improve your posture.