Understanding the cause of spinal stenosis is important for accurate diagnosis and in creating a customized optimal treatment plan. The cause of spinal stenosis is categorized as either primary or acquired.
Primary means the stenosis could be congenital or since birth. Some individuals are born with a spinal canal that is narrower than normal. This is a rare occurrence. Signs or symptoms of primary spinal stenosis do not present until adulthood usually around mid-life.
Acquired spinal stenosis can develop as a result of:
- Bone overgrowth brought on from wear and tear from osteoarthritis on the spinal bones can form bone spurs, that can grow into the spinal canal.
- Paget’s disease is a bone disease that affects adults, and can also cause bone overgrowth in the spine.
- Herniated discs – The discs can begin to dry out with age and form cracks or tears letting out the soft inner material creating pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.
- The ligaments are tough cords that hold the bones of the spine together. They can become stiff and thickened with age and time. The thick ligaments can then bulge into the spinal canal.
- Tumors or abnormal growths can develop inside the spinal cord, in the membranes that cover the spinal cord or inside the space between the cord and vertebrae.
- Spinal trauma/injury like automobile accidents, sports, and other trauma can cause dislocations or fractures of the vertebrae. Pieces of bone from a spinal fracture can fall into and damage the spinal canal.
- Back surgery swelling of tissue immediately after can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.
Acquired Spinal Stenosis
The leading cause is wear and tear on the spine due to aging. The most common direct cause is osteoarthritis, where the cartilage that cushions the joints begins to degenerate with age. The cartilage is smooth when brand new. As the body ages, the cartilage can become rough and can wear through completely. This allows the bones to rub against each other. The rubbing produces small bone growths called bone spurs.
Individuals with these symptoms try to limit movement and limit pain from the bones rubbing together. However, individuals can’t stop moving entirely, and less movement reduces the quality of life. The bone spurs can create other types of pain. Inside the spine, the spurs can narrow the spinal canal (ie. Stenosis) which can compress the spinal cord or nerve roots.
Risk factors for osteoarthritis and disc problems include:
- Improper body mechanics
- Poor posture
- Lifting heavy objects without using proper lifting techniques.
This can damage a disc or move the vertebrae out of proper alignment.
Spinal stenosis prevention is about practicing lifestyle habits to improve and maintain spinal health. For those with stenosis, regular exercise combined with proper body mechanics will help reduce the risk of the spinal stenosis becoming worse.
Exercise, done properly, strengthens and protects the spine from the everyday wear and tear and helps maintain body weight. Being at the proper weight puts less pressure on the spine. Gradually build up the workout sessions until comfortable.
General exercise guidelines are to go for 30 minutes a day. This in combination with aerobic activities like walking or swimming and resistance training like yoga or weight lifting. Stretching out regularly is highly recommended as an effective way to lengthen, loosen, and warm up the spinal muscles. Here are some basic back stretches and exercises for spinal stenosis.
Proper posture along with proper body mechanics are some of the best ways to prevent stenosis from developing/progressing and ensures the health of the spine. They should be practiced all the time:
- Lifting heavy objects
Proper mechanics and posture keep the spine operating at the top level even when doing regular/normal activities. Even though aging is the primary cause of spinal stenosis, does not mean to not be proactive about spinal and general health. Exercise and proper mechanics give the back and neck a strong defense system against cervical or lumbar stenosis that will serve for years.
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