Spinal Stenosis Overview

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Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal canal narrows and pinches the nerves, causing pain in the back and legs. While young people born with a small spinal canal can develop symptoms, spinal stenosis usually occurs as a person ages and is more prevalent in people over 50. Aging causes the ligaments that connect the spine and bones to become thick and calcified and the discs between vertebra to break down, tightening the spinal canal.

Causes of spinal stenosis

In addition to aging, spinal stenosis may be caused by:

  • Arthritis
  • Bone spurs that form on the spine
  • Bone diseases like Paget disease
  • A congenital defect or growth on the spine
  • A herniated or slipped desk
  • Spinal tumors
  • Injuries that put pressure on the nerve root or the spinal cord

Symptoms of spinal stenosis

Symptoms of spinal stenosis include pain, numbness, cramping, tingling, hot or cold sensations, difficulty walking, and a heavy or tired feeling and legs. More serious symptoms include problems controlling bowel movements or urination. Spinal stenosis may also cause a person to experience clumsiness and to fall frequently. Spinal stenosis symptoms often get worse over time and may be felt only on one side of the body. Symptoms can often be alleviated somewhat by bending forward.

Treatment of spinal stenosis at BWH

Patients with spinal stenosis can receive leading-edge care at the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), where American neurosurgery was founded in 1913. Today, our multidisciplinary staff provides world-class, patient-focused medical care for spinal stenosis treatment and the entire spectrum of neurological diseases. At BWH, patients may consult with some of the best neurosurgeons in the country about procedures that include laminectomy, brain tumor surgery, spine surgery, epilepsy and seizure surgery, and peripheral nerve surgery.

Nonsurgical treatment for spinal stenosis at BWH may include:

  • Medicine to alleviate pain.
  • Physical therapy to stretch out the muscles of the back and make them stronger.
  • Cold packs or heat therapy to treat pain during flare-ups.
  • An epidural spinal injection, which medicine is injected directly and the space around the spinal nerves or spinal cord.
  • Massage therapy or acupuncture to relieve pain.

Surgical options for spinal stenosis include:

  • Laminectomy, to remove part of the bone in a vertebra that is compressing the spinal cord or spinal nerves.
  • Foraminotony, a surgery to widen the opening in the back were nerve roots leave the spinal canal
  • Discectomy, to remove a bulging disk.
  • Spinal fusion to fuse two or more vertebra together.

In this video, orthopaedic surgeon Christopher M. Bono, MD, neurosurgeon Michael W. Groff, MD, and physiatrist Zacharia Isaac, MD, discuss surgical and non-surgical treatment for spine care. The Spine Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital provides personalized, comprehensive care for patients with spinal disorders. Our neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons work with specialists in physical medicine, pain management and imaging to first offer patients innovative non-surgical solutions.

In addition to neurosurgery, BWH offers comprehensive care for a number of medical conditions and procedures, including ankylosing spondylitis, cardiac surgery, a laparoscopic hysterectomy, weight loss surgery and more. Use the Find a Doctor tool on our website to search for physicians by specialty, such as a rheumatologist, or by location or language.

Learn more about Spinal Stenosis and ways to treat the condition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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