Have an Aging Back? A Spinal Stenosis Checklist

Inevitable changes occur in the body as we age. Hair turns gray. Wrinkles deepen. Reading glasses become a necessity. But did you know the spine also undergoes aging-related changes? You may have already experienced symptoms of a “graying” spine without realizing it.

Facts about Aging Backs

“Degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis” is the medical term describing the gradual narrowing of the spinal canal as we age. Your spinal canal runs inside your spine from underneath your head down to your tail bone. The spinal cord passes through this canal to your lower back, where it continues as a bunch of nerves down to the tail bone. These nerves power the muscles in your legs, control bladder and bowel function and allow you to feel skin sensations.

Your spinal canal narrows with age for several reasons:

  • Disc heights narrow causing the ligaments that surround the back part of the canal to “fold” inward.
  • Paired “facet joints” over the back of the spinal canal become arthritic, form bone spurs and thicken.

This narrowing occurs very slowly over time, but gradually puts pressure on the bunch of nerves passing through the lower part of your spinal canal. Prolonged standing and walking make the canal even narrower as it arches the canal backward in this position. The result is pain in the lower back and more commonly in the butt and legs. Sitting down or leaning forward opens up the canal and relieves the symptoms.

Spinal Stenosis Checklist

The aging process occurs so gradually you don’t notice at first. Go through the checklist below. The more checks you have, the more likely you’re experiencing degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis.

  • Are you 65 or older?
  • Do you lean forward while walking or standing? (Maybe a loved one has encouraged you to stand up straight?)
  • Do you have pain in the lower back, butt and legs when you stand or walk for long periods?
  • Are you tolerating standing and walking less than you used to because of pain?
  • Do your legs get heavy or tired when you are on your feet for 15 to 30 minutes?
  • Do you sit down often to get relief from lower back or leg pain? (Because your pain goes away when seated.)
  • Do you lean forward or against something when standing for long periods of time? (Leaning on a shopping cart or leaning against the sink while doing the dishes.)
  • Do you sit down often while cooking or preparing food to get relief?
  • Have you had lower back and leg pain for awhile, but notice it’s gradually getting worse over the years?

What To Expect

Most people in their seventies have spinal stenosis but not all may have symptoms. Those with mild symptoms often tolerate the pain for a long time before seeing a doctor. As the pain gradually gets worse over the years, there are a number of treatment options which include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or naproxen
  • Therapy and flexion type exercises
  • Epidural cortisone injections
  • Surgery (typically reserved for severe cases) to relieve pressure on the nerves

The good news is there are ways to alleviate the pain of spinal stenosis. Your doctor can provide written information on your options.

Meet the Author

Mustafa Farooque, MD is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and fellowship trained in musculoskeletal spine and sports medicine at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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