What Is Spinal Stenosis?

If you've been diagnosed, you may be wondering what is spinal stenosis? Symptoms of spinal stenosis can vary depending on where you have it. Lumbar degenerative stenosis usually causes pain, weakness and difficulty walking, while cervical spinal stenosis can cause symptoms anywhere.

The word stenosis simply means "narrowing" so spinal stenosis of narrowing of the spinal canal. It's often the result of arthritis as we age, and can also be called degenerative spinal stenosis.

I recently had an up close and personal experience with this when my father wound up in the hospital after taking several nasty falls in a row. It turns out that for several months, he's been doing what he calls "the geezer shuffle." (I know it's not the most PC term, but this is a personal story and I'd hate for you to miss out on the flavor and spunk of my family). He says between 8 months and a year ago, he started feeling like he was a little unsteady on his feet, and he had to make sure he was touching the banister as he headed upstairs. He said he would also have to lightly touch the wall every now and then as he walked down the hallway. He didn't think too much about it and he never had any numbness or tingling in his legs or feet (although these are symptoms of spinal stenosis that you may have depending on which nerves are being touched).

Then, in February, he stood up from his desk to use the restroom, completely lost balance and fell. He banged his head pretty badly and bruised his arm. With my mom's help he was able to get up and get around. Within just a few days, he fell again, this time getting out of bed, and he didn't fare so well. My mom convinced him to go the doctor, and as he hit the driveway (which is sloped) he lost his balance again and fell again, eventually ending up in the Los Angeles VA Hospital.

When I talked with him about it later, he said he felt a little unsteady on level ground, but as soon as he had to deal with any sort of an incline (like that driveway), he completely lost his balance.

He was in the hospital for 2 weeks, sent home to do PT and rehab work, and is back to his active self, although slower than he was when he was a younger man. He used a walker for several weeks, and now walks without one, although he does still make sure he has a wall or some other item to touch to make sure his balance is steady.

Your spinal column is completely protected by 24 movable bones called vertebrae, which are separated by a fibrous ring filled with a gel, the disc. The disc provides cushioning and shock absorption to your spine. As we age, the discs can dry out, leading to narrowing of the holes between the vertebrae. The nerves to every part of your body go through those holes, and they can be pinched or irritated when those little holes get smaller.

Now, let me explain a little about how your body works before I continue. Whenever your body thinks a bone is unstable, what does it do? Think of a broken bone, which is the ultimate unstable oneā€¦ the body stabilizes the bone by laying down calcium and fusing the bone together, right? The body's natural process with an instability is to make it stable.

When your discs dry out and your spine has increased pressure on it, the body's natural response is to stabilize it. The bones of the spine may grow larger as calcium is deposited, and eventually they may fuse together. Now you have your answer to "What is spinal stenosis, and how did I get it?"

This process can happen anywhere in the spine. In the neck, it is called "cervical stenosis" or "cervical spinal stenosis." In the mid back it is called "thoracic stenosis" or "thoracic spinal stenosis" and in the low back it is called "lumbar stenosis" or "lumbar spinal stenosis." If you also have arthritis in your spine, your doctor may say you have "degenerative stenosis."

For information on spinal stenosis symptoms, click here.

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