Even for the spine specialists at Southeastern Spine Institute, spinal stenosis is one of those rare illnesses that are hard to diagnose. It’s not because the symptoms are difficult to locate or identify. When you’re in pain from spinal stenosis, you know it. The problem is that its symptoms often look like the symptoms of other, more common conditions.
As a result, your spine physician has to rule out other diseases before determining that your problem is indeed spinal stenosis. Often, that means you have to undergo a series of tests. Of course, if you’re in pain, relieving it becomes the doctor’s first priority. Making an accurate diagnosis is then the second priority, but your spine physician needs to do it before he can develop an effective treatment plan.
What Is Spinal Stenosis?
Stenosis occurs when your spinal cord or the nerves that extend out from your spinal cord become compressed, irritated or pinched. In a healthy spine, the spinal canal — the protected space in your spine for the spinal cord — has sufficient space to carry signals back and forth from your brain. If any bones, discs or ligaments impinge on the spinal canal, you’ll feel pain and tingling.
Many conditions can cause spinal stenosis, including a back injury, a herniated disc or even a tumor. Age is another factor, since your spine endures a lot of wear and tear over the years. An injury that occurred at a young age may not slow you down then, but over the years, you may feel it more and more.
If you’re suffering from spinal stenosis, you’ll probably have a numbing or tingling sensation in your lower back. The feeling may radiate down your legs (or just one leg), maybe all the way down to your feet. You likely will feel pain as well, accompanied by a burning sensation.
Symptoms of the condition can vary person to person. Some people don’t feel any pain. Others may feel numbness in one extremity only, like a hand or foot. You may have leg pain or cramping if you stand for too long. Spinal stenosis even can cause loss of bladder or bowel control. The problem for doctors is that these symptoms resemble those of other conditions, making an accurate diagnosis difficult.
Testing for Stenosis
Making an accurate diagnosis for spinal stenosis requires several tests to narrow down the cause of your symptoms. Your spine physician may start with a simple set of X-rays. This test won’t confirm your condition, but it is effective at ruling out other conditions, so it is an excellent starting point.
The next step is an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test. This is the one where they put you into a large chamber to take a series of dissecting images. For an MRI to be most effective, your physician has to know where in your spine to look. An MRI can find tumors as well as expose damaged discs in your spine. Most importantly, an MRI can show your back specialist exactly where your nerves or spinal cord are compromised.
If necessary, your physician can order a CT scan. This is the test where they have to inject you with a dye. During the test, they take a number X-rays at multiple angles. The dye shows the contour of your spinal canal. A CT scan can confirm whether or not you have spinal stenosis, so it is the final test once your spinal specialist has eliminated other illnesses as the cause of your symptoms.