Our spines are responsible for our ability to stand upright, but they do so much more. Without a healthy spine, moving and even just standing can be painful or difficult. Injuries to the spine, even seemingly-minor ones, can have long-lasting, major impacts on our quality of life. Those injuries may not come from an outside source in some cases.
Spinal stenosis is a leading cause of back pain, weakness, and even numbness in parts of the body. While some people are born with the condition, it is generally something that develops over time, and is closely related to the aging process, as well as normal wear and tear on the body’s musculoskeletal system.
What Is Spinal Stenosis?
According to the National Institutes of Health, spinal stenosis is
“a narrowing in one of more areas of the spine, including the space at the center of the spine, the canals where nerves branch out from the spine, and the space between the bones of the spine. This narrowing puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, and can cause pain.”
Healthline further expands on this by stating,
“Spinal stenosis occurs when the space around your spinal cord narrows and causes pressure on your nerve roots…As cartilage wears away, bone rubs against bone. This can result in an overgrowth of bone spurs that introduces into the spinal cord space.”
What Causes Spinal Stenosis?
Spinal stenosis does not have a single underlying cause that applies to all patients. While the most common cause of the disease is a significant change to the spine due to age-related wear and tear, there are other potential causes. For instance, spinal arthritis may be the culprit. In some individuals, inherited spine shapes can lead to the condition. Tumors in the spine, injuries due to external forces, Paget’s disease, calcium deposits on spinal ligaments, and even too much fluoride can all lead to this disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?
Many patients experience no symptoms at all during the early stages of spinal stenosis. It is only once the condition develops more fully that they become noticeable. Ultimately, they can become so painful that they force people to change their lifestyles to accommodate a reduced range of motion, weakness, instability, or other effects.
Some of the more common symptoms of spinal stenosis include pain the neck, pain in the back, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, pain radiating down one leg, pain and other problems with the feet, loss of feeling in one or both legs, and even difficultly having sex. Some patients with severe spinal stenosis may also experience loss of bladder or bowel control.
Understanding the Available Conventional Treatments
As with many other diseases, there are several different treatment options open to those suffering from spinal stenosis. The ultimate course of action will depend on several factors, including the severity of the symptoms.
Medications: Many different medications can help to alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with spinal stenosis. Over the counter pain relievers can help with early stages and mild symptoms. Older antidepressants have been shown to help reduce pain when taken before bed, and even anti-seizure medication can be used. In a worst-case scenario, opioids may be used, but this treatment is very much out of favor nowadays and should be discouraged.
Physical Therapy: May patients find that they alter their lifestyle due to pain from spinal stenosis. This can cause further loss of muscle tissue and strength. Physical therapy can be used to build strength and endurance, to improve balance, and even to help improve the stability of the spine.
Steroids: Depending on the area of the spine affected, steroid injections may be a potential treatment option. Steroids are generally only used when root irritation and inflammation are the underlying cause of the stenosis.
Decompression: Decompression is the process of using a needle-like tool to excise a portion of a thickened spinal ligament to alleviate pressure on the spine and spinal roots. It may also be called image-guided lumbar decompression or minimally invasive lumbar decompression.
Spinal Surgery: Surgery is used as a last resort, and may include any of a range of types, including:
Stem Cell Therapy for Spinal Stenosis
Stem cells have been used successfully to treat an incredibly wide range of medical conditions in medical studies and laboratory settings. These are the building blocks of the body’s regenerative system – they can heal and regenerate damaged cells, and even scar tissue. Stem cells can even transform themselves into other cell types to repair damage when necessary.
As such, these cells may be the ideal treatment option for patients suffering from spinal stenosis. Because stenosis is often caused by inflammation due to damage or irritation, and the growth of scar tissue, these cells hold the potential to address the underlying issue in a way that conventional treatments cannot.
Understanding Stem Cell Types
There are two types of stem cells used in medical research studies and laboratory testing today – autologous stem cells and allogeneic stem cells – but they are not the same. Most studies focus on the use of autologous stem cells. These are harvested from the patient’s own body, usually from fat tissue, and are then injected into the area where treatment is needed. However, there are significant problems with this method.
Autologous stem cells are as old as the patient, meaning that they have lost much of their energy, and their ability to regenerate and heal has been compromised by accumulated damage and cellular mutations. Because of those mutations, there’s even the chance that the patient’s immune system will attack the cells.
Allogeneic stem cells, on the other hand, are harvested from banked umbilical cord blood and tissue. These are “blank” cells, meaning that they are essentially invisible to the immune system. They’re also very energetic, and because of their youth, they have almost limitless regenerative capabilities.
In the end, stem cell therapy may be able to provide relief from the symptoms of spinal stenosis. In some cases, it may be able to halt the progression of the disease. However, no stem cell therapy is approved by the FDA, and all treatments are considered experimental.