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There are two types of spinal stenosis: lumbar stenosis and cervical stenosis. While lumbar spinal stenosis is more common, cervical spinal stenosis is often more dangerous because it involves compression of the spinal cord, as explained below in more detail.
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis VS Cervical Spinal Stenosis
- In lumbar stenosis, the spinal nerve roots in the lower back are compressed, or choked, and this can produce symptoms of sciatica — tingling, weakness or numbness that radiates from the low back and into the buttocks and legs – especially with activity.
- Spinal stenosis pain in the neck (cervical spinal stenosis) can be far more dangerous by compressing the spinal cord. Spinal cord stenosis may lead to serious symptoms, including major body weakness or even paralysis. Such severe spinal stenosis symptoms are virtually impossible in the lumbar spine, however, as the spinal cord is not present in the lumbar spine.
In rare cases, lumbar stenosis can go no further than to produce severe persistent disabling pain and even weakness in the legs. Most cases of stenosis in the lumbar spine, however, have pain that radiates into the leg(s) with walking, and that pain will be relieved with sitting.
Spinal Stenosis in Older Patients
Spinal stenosis is related to degeneration in the spine and usually will become significant in the 5th decade of life and extend throughout every subsequent age group. Most patients first visit their doctor with symptoms of spinal stenosis at about age 60 or so. Patients need only seek treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis if they no longer wish to live with significant activity limitations, such as leg pain and/or difficulty with walking.
Spinal stenosis can occur in a variety of ways in the spine. Approximately 75% of cases of spinal stenosis occur in the lumbar spine (low back), which is called lumbar spinal stenosis, and most will affect the sciatic nerve which runs along the back of the leg. When this happens, it is commonly called sciatica.
Common Symptom of Spinal Stenosis
Leg pain with walking (claudication) can be caused by either arterial circulatory insufficiency (vascular claudication) or from spinal stenosis (neurogenic or pseudo-claudication). Leg pain from either condition will go away with rest, but with spinal stenosis the patient usually has to sit down for a few minutes to ease the leg and often low back pain, whereas leg pain from vascular claudication will go away if the patient simply stops walking.
Although occasionally the leg pain and stenosis symptoms will come on acutely, they generally develop over the course of several years. The longer a patient with spinal stenosis stands or walks, the worse the leg pain will get.
Common Treatment of Spinal Stenosis
Depending on the severity of symptoms, spinal stenosis can often be managed through non-surgical treatments.
The three most common non-surgical spinal stenosis treatments include:
- Activity modification
- Epidural injections
Fortunately, spinal stenosis surgery outcomes for decompression can be among the most rewarding surgical methods used on the spine (second only to removal of some herniated discs). Generally patients do well after decompression surgery and are able to increase their activity following recovery from spinal stenosis surgery. Many patients have a better walking tolerance following back surgery for spinal stenosis.
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