Understanding Canal Stenosis

If you have been diagnosed with canal stenosis, the first step is to begin research. One of the first things you will learn is that “stenosis” is another word for “narrowing,” and canal stenosis is also referred to as spinal stenosis and spinal narrowing. You will also learn that spine surgery is often not the first recommended method of canal stenosis treatment, and that many people find relief from conservative treatments alone. 

What is Canal Stenosis?

Canal stenosis is a spine condition that affects the spinal column. The spinal cord is housed within a space called the spinal canal, which is bounded by the vertebrae of the spine. When the area around the spinal cord narrows, it is referred to as central stenosis, central spinal stenosis, or just spinal stenosis. 

This spine condition and its underlying causes can produce a number of uncomfortable symptoms. If you have spinal stenosis, you may experience pain in the neck or back, as well as pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness radiating to other parts of the body. Depending on the exact location of the stenosis, some patients might experience these symptoms in the neck, upper back, arms, lower back, hips, or leggs. Some patients don’t experience canal stenosis symptoms as a result of a narrowed spinal canal. 

What Causes Canal Stenosis?

There are many spine conditions that could lead to the development of canal stenosis, including the following:

  • OsteoarthritisThis type of arthritis is typically acquired through the natural aging process. Spinal osteoarthritis can cause the spine’s facet joints to become inflamed and crowd spaces around the spinal cord and its nerve roots. 
  • Herniated Discs and/or Bulging DiscsWhen a spinal disc bulges and/or herniates, disc tissue may enter the spinal canal, causing stenosis.
  • Bone SpursThe body commonly produces bone spurs as a means to mitigate bone-on-bone friction. In the spine, this friction can happen in several ways. For instance, spinal discs can collapse due to age-related degeneration, allowing adjacent vertebrae to move closer together and rub against one another. This prompts the formation of bone spurs that may encroach upon the spine’s facet joints. Without a soft coating of cartilage, raw joint ends scrape against each other. This may stimulate the creation of bone spurs, which intrude upon the spinal canal. 

These spinal conditions can be diagnosed through a variety of imaging techniques, including X-rays, MRI scans, and CT scans. You may also be asked to perform strength and reflex tests and take blood to test for other conditions that may cause canal stenosis. 

Canal Stenosis Treatment

If you have been diagnosed with central canal stenosis, you should consult your physician to determine the proper course of treatment. Most patients are advised to follow a conservative, nonsurgical treatment regimen consisting of some combination of the following canal stenosis treatments:

  • Medication – Many patients find relief from their canal stenosis symptoms by taking over-the-counter pain medications, like acetaminophen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen. In some cases, pain may not respond to these drugs, and patients may be prescribed stronger oral medications and spinal injections.
  • Physical Therapy – Although stretching and exercising won’t permanently reverse canal stenosis, in most cases it is essential to keep the spine moving to ensure that it stays as healthy and flexible as possible. Physical therapy sessions involve performing exercises designed to strengthen the muscles of the back and keep the spine flexible. 
  • Hot and/or Cold Therapy – To address the inflammation and pain that can accompany canal stenosis, patients may place ice packs or heating pads on their necks or backs. It’s important to follow a physician’s recommendation for how long to leave these items in place, but a general guideline is to apply them for 20 minutes and remove them for 20 minutes. Placing a towel between the ice bag or heating pad and the body can help prevent potential damage to the skin.

In addition to recommending these techniques, physicians generally suggest that canal stenosis patients make lifestyle adjustments to improve their overall well-being. Although changing your lifestyle will not cure spinal stenosis or reverse its effects, making certain adjustments can improve the health of your spine as a whole and potentially help mitigate the canal stenosis symptoms of stenosis. Some commonly suggested changes include:

  • Maintaining a Healthy Weight – Losing excess weight can take some of the burden off the spine and potentially alleviate canal stenosis symptoms, particularly in the case of lumbar spinal stenosis. Extra weight around the belly can place pressure on the already injury-prone lower back area. 
  • Quitting Smoking – Smoking can lead to the breakdown of tissues in the spine, and kicking the habit can help sustain the strength of this important area of the body. This is, of course, just one of the many health benefits that patients can gain by stopping smoking. 
  • Limiting Alcohol Consumption – Alcohol can impede circulation and relax the muscles that are used to stabilize the spine. Cutting back on drinking can therefore improve circulation around the spine and help the musculature provide better support for affected areas of the neck or back. 
  • Regular Exercise – Although patients who are experiencing pain and other symptoms caused by spinal stenosis might noy feel like exercising, getting up, and moving generally improves spinal health. Low-impact activities that gently strengthen the muscles supporting the spine and increase flexibility can help. 

There are also alternative canal stenosis treatments that you may find useful in managing your spinal stenosis symptoms, including:

  • Chiropractic Care – Based on the thinking that limited spinal mobility and poor alignment can translate to pain and other symptoms, this method focuses on making adjustments to the spine to return it to a fill range of motion. Such adjustments may include application of manual foce or traction to move vertebrae and potentially reduce the pressure on the spinal cord and affected nerve roots. 
  • Acupuncture – This canal stenosis treatment is based on the belief that life energy flows through the body along meridians, and this energy can be blocked at certain points, potentially causing health problems. Acupuncturists carefully apply small needles to specific areas of the body in order to release this energy. The treatment is said to alleviate pain and improve participants’ overall quality of life. 
  • Yoga – Yoga postures focus on proper breathing and slow, gently stretching, which some people find helpful in addressing their canal stenosis pain and other symptoms. It is important for you to start slowly and ease your way into simple poses, so you won’t have to unintentionally worsen your pain. 

In many cases, conservative approaches can help manage the symptoms of canal stenosis, but they aren’t effective in every circumstance. If conservative therapies prove ineffective after several weeks or months, you may be advised to undergo surgery. BEST Health System offers patients a less invasive alternative to traditional surgery.