Spinal narrowing, also known as spinal stenosis, is a very broad term that describes constriction of the already tight nerve pathways in the spinal column. In addition to helping our upper body stay upright, the spine is responsible for protecting the spinal cord as it travels from the brain to the rest of the body. The spinal cord is protected by the central spinal canal, and individual nerve roots exit through small openings called foramina.
Spinal narrowing can occur when displaced spinal anatomy, such as a bulging or herniated disc or a bone spur, constricts either the central spinal canal or the foramina. This is a surprisingly common condition and it’s even possible for patients to develop this condition without knowing it. However, if spinal narrowing results in compression of the spinal cord or nerves in and around the spinal column, debilitating symptoms can result.
Whether you have been recently diagnosed with spinal narrowing or you’re researching potential causes of neck pain, back pain or other symptoms, learning about the risk factors for this condition can help. From both a treatment and prevention standpoint, understanding spinal narrowing risk factors can help you adopt a more spine-friendly lifestyle that can help you on a long-term basis.
As you read over the following helpful guide, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our dedicated representatives. We’ll help you learn more about treatment options for spinal narrowing that can help you get back to the quality of life you deserve.
- Age-related Degeneration
The primary cause of spinal narrowing is simply the natural aging process. As we get older, our bodies tend to dry out and lose elasticity. The spinal column is highly flexible, but it requires the rubbery spinal discs and the spinal facet joints to bend and flex smoothly.
As these parts of spinal anatomy begin to wear out over time, they become less able to withstand the stress they are placed under. The discs can lose height or develop bulges and herniation, while the joints can lose cartilage and joint fluid that leads to inflammation known as arthritis. Facet joint arthritis can also lead to the development of bone spurs that restrict movement and cause narrowing.
Although injury is less of a direct risk factor for spinal narrowing than many people think, it can still be a significant contributor. Traumatic injuries such as falls or motor vehicle accidents can cause injuries to the discs or vertebrae that narrows the spinal column and causes compression of the spinal cord or nerves. Additionally, repetitive motion injuries caused by physical labor or exercises such as running can increase the stress on spinal anatomy and be a potential risk factor for accelerated degeneration.
The best way to decrease the risk of long-term spinal narrowing is to take injuries seriously when they do occur. Follow any doctor-recommended guidelines for resting and returning to normal activities. Recurring injuries and reinjury are often associated with chronic pain and spinal nerve compression.
- Being overweight or obese
Carrying extra body weight, especially for long periods of time, is a major risk factor for spinal narrowing. This is because excess weight increases the stress on spinal anatomy and can compound natural degenerative forces. Whether spinal narrowing has already been diagnosed or you’re looking to prevent it, a weight management program can be beneficial.
Work with your doctor to develop a comprehensive plan that includes proper nutrition and regular exercise. Not only do these actions have their own health benefits to the spine that we’ll discuss below, but they can also help maintain a body weight that reduces pressure on the spine and can potentially reduce the risk of spinal narrowing.
- A Sedentary lifestyle
Being inactive is associated with being a spinal narrowing risk factor for a number of reasons. First, it is associated with muscle atrophy, including the muscles that support the spinal column. These muscles help reduce pressure on the spinal column and keep the space as open as possible for the spinal cord or nerves.
Second, being overly sedentary is associated with decreased cardiovascular health. The spinal anatomy, particularly the discs receive a relatively reduced blood flow compared to other parts of the body. Reduced cardiovascular health reduces this already small flow of regenerative nutrients to the discs, joints and connective tissue of the spine.
Patients can improve activity level by engaging in just a few minutes of low-impact exercises a day, including walks and gentle stretching. Consistency is key.
- Smoking or tobacco use
Smoking has a long list of negative health effects, including reduced cardiovascular health and pulmonary function. This can be a particular risk for spinal narrowing because it decreases blood flow to the discs and joints in the spine. As discussed above, the spine receives reduced nutrient supply and needs all the blood flow it can get.
Patients at risk for spinal narrowing or who have been diagnosed with the condition are generally advised by their doctor to start a tobacco cessation program if they are smokers or tobacco users.
- Posture and mechanics
The way we hold and move our bodies every day can have a marginal, yet significant, impact on the health of our spinal column. Poor posture can result in uneven pressure on the spinal anatomy that can be associated with faster degeneration over time. Additionally, unaddressed mechanical problems can also put added and unneeded stress on the spinal column.
Working with a physical therapist or trainer to address postural and mechanical issues can be an important part of reducing this risk factor and/or treating spinal narrowing if it does develop.
Although medical researchers are still working to understand the link between spinal narrowing and genetics, there is believed to be a link. Certain patients are born with a narrower spinal column than others due to heritable traits or congenital defects. Additionally, the prevalence of spinal narrowing within families leads many physicians and researchers to believe that there is a genetic component to age-related breakdown of spinal anatomy.
Although this is a risk factor for spinal narrowing that cannot be prevented, being aware of it can help to contribute to an overall spine healthy lifestyle and promote a proactive approach to spinal narrowing treatment.
Learn more about Spinal Narrowing when you reach out to USA Spine Care today
If you are suffering from spinal narrowing symptoms, it doesn’t have to run your life. The highly experienced team at USA Spine Care can help you create a personalized treatment plan that is right for your needs and lifestyle. From physical therapy and injections to outpatient minimally invasive decompression or spinal fusion procedures, also known as minimally invasive stabilization, our goal is to help you overcome pain and get back to the lifestyle you deserve.
Contact us today to learn more.
Spinal Narrowing Quick Answers
What causes narrowing of the spine?
Spinal narrowing, or stenosis, is primarily caused by the natural aging process. Over time, spinal anatomy wears down, causing displacement that narrows the already tight nerve pathways in the spine. In addition to aging, any activity or lifestyle factor that increases stress on the spinal column can contribute to narrowing, including posture, being overweight or obese and having weak supporting muscles.
What are the treatment options for narrowing of the spine?
Upon diagnosis of spinal narrowing, most doctors recommend conservative therapies such as over-the-counter medication, rest, physical therapy and steroid injections. Surgery can become an option if weeks or months of conservative treatment does not offer relief and a return to an active lifestyle.
How serious is narrowing of the spine?
Spinal narrowing is extremely common and can range in severity from mild to serious. If narrowing causes compression or irritation of the spinal cord or nerve roots, symptoms can be debilitating and seriously affect quality of life. In very rare cases, spinal narrowing can result in a life-threatening condition called cauda equina syndrome that results in bowel and bladder incontinence and loss of sensation in the lower body. Patients experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical treatment.
What are the risks of not treating spinal narrowing
Spinal narrowing is typically a progressive condition that can become more severe with age. Although there is no way to turn back the natural aging process, taking a proactive approach to treatment can help slow the progression of narrowing. Ignoring the condition can result in progressively worsening symptoms that negatively affect quality of life.