Can You Be Born with Spinal Stenosis?

congenital spinal stenosisBack pain is often thought of as something that happens to older people but it is possible to be born with spinal stenosis, and to be born with an increased propensity for back problems in childhood and later in life. Congenital spinal stenosis is a condition where, from birth, the spinal canal is narrow due to an abnormal bone structure. Starting out with spinal stenosis usually means that, unfortunately, the condition worsens with age.

What is Congenital Spinal Stenosis?

Receiving a diagnosis of congenital spinal stenosis may, however, take some time as symptoms do not always arise early in life. Often it is a back injury or the beginning of spinal degeneration that reveals the issue as a congenitally narrow spinal canal means that even the smallest degree of arthritis or disc degeneration may cause symptoms. In those without congenital spinal stenosis it usually takes a lot longer for normal wear and tear to lead to symptoms like back pain and nerve pain.

Reducing the Impact of Congenital Spinal Stenosis

Those who were born with spinal stenosis are usually advised to take especially good care of their back right from an early age. This means that it can be risky to engage in some sports, and is absolutely frowned upon to smoke as this adversely affects the rate at which spinal degeneration occurs. Staying hydrated and well nourished and trying to avoid shocks to the spine are also important in slowing down disc degeneration and loss of disc height which leads to increasing spinal stenosis.

Acquired and Congenital Spinal Canal Narrowing

Some spinal canal narrowing is inevitable as we age as osteophytes (bone spurs) develop, ligaments become thicker and less flexible, and discs may bulge, leak, or herniate. Some back trauma is unavoidable, such as whiplash from a car accident, falls, or simply being knocked whilst playing sports at school. Most people only develop symptomatic spinal stenosis after they turn fifty or so but those with congenital spinal stenosis may have symptoms as early as their teen years or, in severe cases, pre-teen.

Risk Factors for Congenital Spinal Stenosis

Fortunately, congenital spinal stenosis is rare, but it is undetectable prior to birth and is not thought to be preventable. Clearly there are factors that contribute to a healthy pregnancy which may also influence bone development in a foetus, such as smoking, drug use, and malnutrition. However, in most cases the development of congenital spinal stenosis has no clear cause and it occurs in all genders and ethnicities. Those born with achondroplasia dwarfism are, however, disproportionately affected by congenital spinal stenosis.

Congenital Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Other spine conditions such as scoliosis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and musculoskeletal conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome may exacerbate congenital spinal stenosis. Symptoms of the condition are the same as for acquired spinal stenosis and include:

  • Radiating pain in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, buttocks, hips, thighs, legs, and toes
  • Pain in the lower back or cervical spine where the stenosis is worst
  • Leg cramps and spasms
  • Numbness, weakness, loss of muscle mass and flexibility in the arms and legs
  • Headaches
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence
  • Paralysis

The latter of these symptoms are caused by severe spinal stenosis which is affecting the spinal cord itself and are immediate red flags that should prompt urgent medical attention. In most cases of congenital spinal stenosis it will still take many years for the existing spinal narrowing from birth to become severe enough to cause such symptoms but knowing that you were born with spinal stenosis can help inform life choices to reduce your risk.

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