What is spinal compression? – Causes, symptoms & treatment

Spinal compression, not to be confused with spinal cord compression, occurs when the bones of the spine (called vertebrae) get squashed due to various factors.

This issue can occur at any part of the spine, be it the cervical spine, thoracic spine or lumbar spine. Because the spinal cord houses a number of nerves that pass through it, this inner bundle of nerves is affected by compression. In more severe cases, the nerve roots can also suffer damage from compression.

Your spine can be compressed in multiple places, or the compression can be caused by more than one factor and come from more than one direction.

What causes spinal compression?

Your spine can become compressed by a variety of factors, but the most common one is related to aging. With time, our spinal column goes through a natural process of wear and tear, where the bone mass is being worn out by continuous movement.

Other factors that can lead to compression are illnesses of the spine, including infections, tumours, physical injury, bone disorders, and degenerative diseases of the spine.

It must be noted that compression at the spine level can occur not only due to bones placing pressure on one another, but also because of soft tissue, as well as blood issues around the spinal area and cancer. When any one of these type of tissue puts pressure on the spine, it can lead to its compression.

Symptoms

Oftentimes, these factors place pressure on the spinal cord and nerves coming out of it, leading to a number of symptoms. The symptoms that arise as a result of pressure, stem mostly from the nerves being affected, rather then the bone mass itself. It is the nerves inside the spine that are responsible for the painful sensation we feel or don’t feel.

Symptoms of spinal compression include:

  • Pain in your back or neck
  • Pain that is referred (occurs in the spine but you feel it in a different part of your body, such as legs, feet, arms, head etc.)
  • Numbness or weakness along your spine OR
  • Referred numbness or weakness, typically in your legs or arms
  • Loss of sensation in your spine or limbs
  • A burning sensation within the spine
  • Back pain that worsens with physical activity
  • Difficulty walking or even standing up
  • More severe cases of spinal compression might include loss of bowel or bladder control

Spinal decompression does not necessarily occur on its own. It can arise as part of other disorders at the level of the spine, or it can cause some issues itself. Spinal disorders typically associated with spinal compression include:

  • Sciatica
  • Cauda equina syndrome
  • Herniated/ bulging discs
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Facet joint syndrome
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Spinal deformation (e.g. from scoliosis or kyphosis)
  • Other disorders at the level of the spinal canal

Risk factors

There are also a number of risk factors associated with this disorder. In other words, there are certain elements that can make someone more prone to developing compression at the spine level. That includes:

  • Being male. Men have a higher chance to suffer from compression of the spinal cord than women do.
  • Working in an environment that requires heavy lifting. This may be linked with the previous factor, although it can affect men and women equally. Repeated lifting of heavy objects has the potential to injure or even severely damage the spine.
  • Having low bone density. Osteoporosis can reduce the density of your bone mass, making your bones more prone to injury and fractures.
  • Having a high body weight. Extra weight can put unnecessary pressure on the spine. Because of this it is advised to maintain a healthy weight, which can be achieved by consuming a healthy diet as well as performing regular exercise.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you’re inclined to believe you may be suffering from spinal compression, a good rule of the thumb is to seek medical advice before starting any form of treatment.

Obtaining a diagnosis to help discover the root cause of your spinal compression and its associated symptoms, can determine the treatment plan that you might have to follow.

The diagnosis process can take place in stages. Initially, you’ll go through a series of physical examinations performed (preferably) by a spinal specialist. If any abnormality or cause for concern is detected during this stage, you may be referred to have further tests, such as a CT scan, or an MRI scan.

When seeking treatment for spinal compression, it is advised to start with the least invasive option first, and work your way up from there if the treatment doesn’t work for you. Also to consider is that the main aim of the treatment should be spinal decompression to relieve pressure in your spine. Relief from other symptoms shall naturally follow.

With that being said, these are some treatment options to consider if you suffer from spinal cord pressure:

  • Physical therapy. It’s the most recommended and most efficient form of treatment as it provides minimum or no side effects. It is a natural method that can reduce pain and yield positive results in a high number of patients with this type of spinal disorder.
  • Steroid injections. These can be effective in some cases of compression, but their effects are oftentimes temporary and might not work for all cases. Needless to say, although this type of injections can provide pain and inflammation relief, they do not treat your medical condition in the long run. Rather, it is a way to mask your symptoms, without addressing the underlying causes.
  • Medication that can temporarily reduce swelling. Also known as anti-inflammatory medication, this type of treatment also provides only temporary relief from pain and inflammation. Taking medication for this condition only masks the symptoms you feel but does nothing to free you from pain in the long term. Worse still, they are oftentimes accompanied by several side effects, especially in high doses.
  • This should only be considered as a last resort for treating compression of the spine. Due to its highly invasive nature, it is not a recommended form of treatment for mild cases that can be resolved through more natural means. Surgical treatments are mostly reserved for patients who have tried everything else, but nothing worked for them, and their symptoms are so severe that they significantly affect the quality of life.

 

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