What is spinal cord compression, and how can you avoid it?
Spinal cord compression is caused by any condition that puts pressure on your spinal cord (the bundle of nerves that carries messages back and forth from your brain to your muscles and other soft tissues). As your spinal cord travels down your back, it’s protected by a stack of backbones called vertebrae, which also hold your body upright. The nerves of your spinal cord run through the openings between the vertebrae and out to your muscles. Spinal cord compression can occur anywhere in the spine, including in the neck (cervical spine) and the torso (thoracic spine).
What causes spinal cord compression?
The gradual wear and tear on the bones of the spine (known as osteoarthritis) are one of the most common causes of spinal cord compression, especially in those older than 50. Those of you much younger, in your 20s and 30s – BEWARE – your actions now (like wearing high heeled shoes, carrying very heavy tote bags, and lifting heavy weights at the gym), may come back to bite you down the track! Aside from general wear and tear, the following conditions can contribute to spinal cord compression, and come on very suddenly, at any age:
- Injury to the spine
- Abnormal spine alignment (scoliosis)
- Spinal tumour
- Bone spurs
- Disk Herniation
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What are the symptoms?
Depending on the cause, symptoms may appear quickly in a matter of hours or days, or take weeks, months or even years to develop. It’s important to take notice of any symptoms, so you can get on top of them straight away before they cause more long term damage:
- Pain and stiffness in the neck, upper back or lower back
- Burning pain that spreads into arms, buttocks, or down the legs, called sciatica
- Numbness, weakness, and/or cramping in the hands, arms or legs
- Loss of sensation in the feet
- Trouble with hand or leg coordination
- “Foot drop,” weakness in a foot that causes a limp
- Balance issues
Pressure on nerves in the lumbar region (lower back) can also cause more serious symptoms known as cauda equina syndrome. If you have any of these symptoms, you need to get medical care right away, with a trip to the emergency room:
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Severe or increasing numbness between the legs, inner thighs, and back of the legs
- Severe pain and weakness that is spreading into one or both legs, making it harder to move around (even while sitting) or walking
Diagnosis and Treatment for spinal cord compression
Your medical team will generally undertake a physical examination to uncover areas of weakness, loss of sensation, or abnormal reflexes. You may also be required to have imaging such as an X-Ray, CT or MRI to help with the diagnosis.
Depending on the cause and severity of your condition, spinal cord compression can be treated in many ways – from physical therapy and medication, right through to surgery or radiation (if a tumour is present).
While many of the more sudden and severe causes of spinal cord compression can’t be prevented, you can help prevent symptoms of spinal cord compression caused by gradual wear and tear by keeping the muscles and bones of your back as strong and healthy as possible.
- Maintain a healthy weight. It’s no surprise – the heavier you are, the more stress on your back, which can contribute to developing symptoms of spinal compression.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise strengthens the muscles that support your back and helps keep your spine flexible. Pilates is a great form of exercise for these areas – speak to your instructor about a tailored program targeting your condition.
- Strive to maintain good posture when sitting, walking, and avoid hunching over to look at your phone or screen. Make sure your work area is set up correctly and you have a supportive chair if you work at a desk.
- Learn how to safely lift heavy objects (be it at the gym or at work / around the house)
- Ensure you are sleeping on a good quality mattress
- Don’t carry heavy handbags or shopping bags on the same side of the body all the time (the same goes when carrying small children on your hips).
- Swap your eye-watering high heels with a pair of supportive, comfortable flats!
If you have any symptoms associated with spinal cord compression, please consult your doctor, and let us know when you are next in class so we can modify your exercise routine accordingly.