If you're like millions of other Americans, your lower back hurts. This pain may be intermittent or it may be more constant. And if you're like a lot of other Americans, you throw back some ibuprofen and resign yourself to living with the discomfort. It's simple arthritis, you tell yourself, or perhaps the result of overdoing it at the gym. And while that may be true, you also may be suffering from a condition known as spinal stenosis.

Spinal stenosis is a classic disease of aging. It's a narrowing of the spinal column resulting from the simultaneous shrinking and drying out of the spinal discs and the swelling or growth of the spinal bones and ligaments, perhaps due to arthritis. But it also may be caused by an injury to the spinal cord or a past herniated or slipped disc. Other possible causes of this condition are congenital spinal defects or tumors in the spine.

When your spinal column narrows, it can cause a variety of symptoms. Typically, you'll notice them on one side of the body. These can include weakness or numbness in the back, buttocks, or legs, as well as similar sensations in the neck, shoulders, or arms. The discomfort tends to worsen when you stand or walk and lessens when you're seated. This is why many people with spinal stenosis have trouble walking for too long but can ride a bicycle without complaint. More serious cases can cause difficulty maintaining balance while walking and urinary and bowel problems.

How does your doctor determine that you have spinal stenosis? A series of tests demonstrating how easily you walk, bend, sit, stand, and lift and lower your legs may be administered. Depending on the results, you may also need an x-ray and MRI or CT scan of the spine.

Doctors generally prefer that people with spinal stenosis manage it gently as opposed to aggressively. Pain medication and physical therapy are the treatments of choice, with steroid injections employed at times. If your pain worsens or is not helped by these first-line treatments, surgery may be an option to explore. Generally, people with spinal stenosis can live normal, active lives with some modifications.



National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov