Don’t Let Back Pain Hold You Back

If you are living with back pain, you already know that it can be extremely debilitating. However, you may not know that often there are steps you can take to alleviate the pain and restore a fuller range of motion. If you are over age 50, odds are the cause of your back pain is related to some degree of spinal stenosis.

According to orthopaedic and spinal surgeon Michael McNamara, M.D., spinal stenosis is a condition that occurs as the spinal canal narrows, restricting or compressing the nerve roots and spinal cord. It often is caused by osteoarthritis of the spinal column. Common symptoms are pain in the legs or lower back when standing or walking. Spinal stenosis affects about one per 1,000 persons over age 65, and about five of every 1,000 persons older than 50 years.

The narrowing of the spinal canal often happens in the lower back (lumbar spine) and neck (cervical spine) or, on rare occasion, the thoracic region of the spine (upper back). The symptoms of pain, weakness or numbness can occur in several areas, depending on the region of the spinal cord that is constricted.

Spinal stenosis can be a congenital condition, with some people having a narrow spinal canal from birth. However, more often, it results from degenerative changes in the spine and the wear and tear that leads to osteoarthritis. Bony overgrowth from osteoarthritis, thickening of a ligament in the back and bulging disks can contribute to the condition.

“Lumbar spinal stenosis is a progressive condition that generally worsens if you do nothing; however, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do,” McNamara said. “Many patients are surprised to learn that there are a number of conservative approaches to treatment that do not entail surgery.”

There are actually two types of spinal stenosis. Foramenal stenosis occurs when a nerve is pinched as it exits the spinal cord, and central stenosis compresses the entire canal, according to McNamara.

“A combination of anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy often can be very effective in treating the symptoms of spinal stenosis,” McNamara said. “We also know that yoga and Pilates can have a profound benefit. Epidural steroid injections also can be an effective, less invasive option than surgery.”

“If patients can get better and avoid surgery, they are better for it,” he said. “For that reason, anytime we can find conservative remedies that relieve pain and restore movement, our goal is to pursue those options for as long as possible.”

In instances where surgery is required, McNamara strives to keep incisions as small as possible. “The type of surgery required depends on the type of stenosis and the condition of the spine,” McNamara said.

A laminectomy is performed when the stenosis is causing pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots. The surgeon removes part of the lamina or bony portion of the spinal canal. The extent of the removal depends on the extent of the stenosis. Likewise, a laminotomy is performed to remove some of the facet joints along the spine and to restore the spinal canal to its native size.

Nerves enter and exit the spinal canal through specialized gaps in spinal joints called foramina. Occasionally, the surgeon needs to reopen the foramina when they have been narrowed by an overgrowth of bone, causing the stenosis.

In most cases, these procedures do not affect the strength of the spine. However, if the tissue removal is significant or the spine has been weakened by an underlying condition, the surgeon may perform a spinal fusion.

“These are big surgeries that require extensive recovery,” McNamara said. “It is important for patients to know they do not need to suffer in silence or out of fear that surgery is their only option.”

“In our practice, we are dedicated to using the most conservative management and treatment of spinal stenosis possible,” he said. “It is important for those suffering from back pain to find a spine specialist who listens carefully, and partners with them to map out a treatment plan that is the least invasive, but still relieves their pain and helps them get their life back.”  

About Michael McNamara, M.D.

Michael McNamara, M.D., is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon specializing in treatment of the spine, and currently serves as the chief of Surgery at Williamson Medical Center. He specializes in spinal fusion, laminectomy and discectomy and commonly treats spinal stenosis, herniated disks, sciatica, scoliosis and back pain. McNamara received his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland before attending medical school at North Carolina’s Duke University School of Medicine. A widely respected leader in his field, McNamara specializes in the treatment of spinal disorders, and his extensive work has been cited in more than two dozen journal articles and abstracts. His office can be reached by calling (615) 791-2630.