Harvard Women's Health Watch

Treating lumbar spinal stenosis

Medications and physical therapy can help — and so can surgery.

In older adults, one of the most common causes of lower back (lumbar spine) pain is spinal stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the spinal cord, the nerve roots branching from it, or both. The effects may extend to the buttocks, thighs, and lower legs as well, causing further pain, numbness or tingling, and weakness. In severe cases, bowel and bladder control may be affected. The symptoms of spinal stenosis can severely curtail normal activities, including walking and standing. When the symptoms become chronic, they may set the stage for health problems related to inactivity, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression.

The main cause of spinal stenosis is age-related changes in bone and other spinal tissues. The condition usually develops after age 50 but can occur earlier in people who have had a spine injury or were born with a narrow spinal canal. As many as 35% of those seeking help for chronic low back pain may have the disorder. It's the main reason for spinal surgery in people over age 65.

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