4 Primary Causes of Spinal Stenosis

4 Primary Causes of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is usually divided into two broad categories: cervical stenosis and lumbar stenosis. The difference is the location of the problem. Cervical stenosis is a narrowing of your spinal column in your neck, and lumbar stenosis is in your lower back or lumbar region. 

At Orthopaedic Specialists, our team of experts treats back pain and both types of spinal stenosis, and know that the diagnosis comes with lots of questions. We’re always happy to answer your questions in the context of your personal situation. In this post we discuss four of the most common reasons people develop spinal stenosis. 

Overview of your spine

Before we get to the potential cause of your stenosis, we want to take a moment to describe the structure of your spine. It’s made up of vertebrae, which are discs of bone, with holes in the middle, like donuts. Between each vertebrae are cushioning discs. In the tunnel in the center of the vertebrae and discs there’s a thick bundle of nerves that transmit messages from your brain to the rest of your body — your spinal cord. 

If the tunnel surrounding your spinal cord becomes too narrow, some of your nerves may be compressed. Most of the time, it’s that compression that brings about the symptoms that likely brings you to our office. You may have leg or arm weakness, lower back pain, numbness in your legs, or difficulty balancing. 

1. Age

The number one reason people develop spinal stenosis is simply time. Over time, your joints, including those between your vertebrae, wear out. Usually we refer to this as osteoarthritis. Most people have begun to experience changes in their spines related to osteoarthritis by the time they are around 50 years old. 

Osteoarthritis can cause the cartilage that protects your joints to begin to break down and wear away. That allows the bones to rub against each other. 

In some cases, the body tries to grow new bone, and the result is a bone spur, or overgrowth of bone. A bone spur that extends into your spinal canal can cause stenosis. 

2. Bulging or herniated discs

When the cushioning disc between your vertebrae wears out or is injured, you may develop a bulging disc. Over time, the tissue of the disc becomes drier and weaker and more prone to tearing. 

As the layers of tissue become weaker, the gel-like material in the disc that provides the cushioning squishes over to one side, pushing it out. That pressing out, or bulging, narrows your spinal column and compresses the nerves in your spinal cord. 

3. Thickened ligaments

Ligaments are bands of tissue that attach bones together in joints, such as your vertebrae. Another consequence of osteoarthritis is that ligaments can become thicker. 

That thickening can cause the ligaments in your spine to press into your spinal canal, narrowing it and compressing your nerves. 

4. Injury

If you’ve had a fall or an auto accident or some other injury to your spine, it can lead to stenosis. Dislocations, fractures, and similar trauma can cause swelling that results in a narrowing of your spinal column. Such injuries can also damage the nerves in your spinal canal. 

Spinal stenosis can be a scary diagnosis. Your spinal cord, after all, is an essential element in your ability to move. There are effective treatments, though the best one depends very much on factors that vary significantly from person to person. At Orthopaedic Specialists, you can rest assured that we make treatment recommendations based on your circumstances, goals, and medical history. If you have questions, schedule an appointment by phone or request an appointment online at any of our regional offices.

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