As we age, our bodies change and so do our spines. Wear and tear over the years can lead to degeneration in the bones, discs, muscles, and ligaments. This, in turn, usually leads to troubles like bulging discs, arthritis in the spinal joints, and spinal bone spurs.
And while this is a normal part of aging, says Dr. Sandro LaRocca, founder of New Jersey Spine & Back Institute, it’s often an uncomfortable or even downright painful experience and could be a sign of lumbar spinal stenosis.
Stenosis, which means a narrowing of the spine, often leads to a pinching of the nerves. This not only affects your ability to move, it can cause tingling, numbness, and pain in the back, buttocks, and legs.
Typically, says Dr. LaRocca, pain occurs while standing or walking and goes away when sitting or leaning forward. This is why people with lumbar stenosis feel better when pushing a shopping cart, he says ‒‒ the flex-forward position takes the pressure off the spine and discs, which relieves the pinching of the nerves.
Stenosis typically starts affecting people in their 40s and 50s, Dr. LaRocca says. And unlike many other back or spinal ailments, it does not stem from any kind of illness or trauma. It is simply a matter of aging.
The good news, says Dr. LaRocca, is that physical therapy usually takes care of the pain and discomfort of lumbar spinal stenosis, provided the condition is caught early. Discomfort in the back, buttocks, or legs is a good early warning sign that should not be ignored. Stenosis is a progressive disease, after all. If left untreated, the pain, discomfort, and compromised mobility will only worsen.
If physical therapy cannot alleviate the problem, Dr. LaRocca will move on to epidural injections designed to relieve the pain. Only if these first, more conservative treatments fail to relieve the pain does Dr. LaRocca recommend surgery.
But if surgery is what will improve someone’s quality of life and make them pain-free, he won’t hesitate to make the recommendation to operate because lumbar stenosis is no joke. More than 400,000 Americans suffer from decreased mobility and pain associated with lumbar stenosis.
The only conclusive way to know whether you have lumbar stenosis is to have a diagnostic test, preferably an MRI. For those who cannot submit to an MRI, CT scans with a myelogram, in which a dye is injected into the spine to show where some areas may be constricted, are the best alternative.
However it’s diagnosed, lumbar spinal stenosis can often be fixed before it gets debilitating. If you or someone you know has lower back problems ‒‒ particularly ones that subside when sitting or leaning forward ‒‒ call Dr. Sandro LaRocca at New Jersey Neck & Back Institute in Lawrenceville, 609-896-0020, or visit him on the web at www.NJNBI.com.
New Jersey Neck & Back Institute, 3131 Princeton Pike #106, Lawrenceville. 609-896-0020. www.njnbi.com. See ad, page 25.