New York Mets third baseman David Wright retired after playing his final game on Saturday—and he made it clear that that he wished things were different. Wright, 35, said that he has spinal stenosis, a painful condition that made it “debilitating” to play baseball at times.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m good with where I’m at right now, that would be a lie, it would be false,” Wright said at a postgame conference, as reported by Forbes. “I’m at peace with the work and the time and the effort, the dedication that I put into this. But I’m certainly not at peace with the end result. But tonight was special.”
Wright, who had several surgeries for spinal stenosis, announced in mid-September that he would be retiring because of his condition. “From everything the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement,” he said during a press conference announcing his retirement, per USA Today. “Some days the pain could be moderate and manageable. Some days it was too much to be thinking about baseball. … It’s debilitating to play baseball.”
Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spaces in your spine become narrow.
In most cases, people experience stenosis in their lower back (a form of the condition called lumbar stenosis). But it can also occur elsewhere, like in the neck, which is called cervical stenosis. In any case, the narrowing that occurs puts extra pressure on the bundle of nerves that travel through your spine (the spinal cord) and may cause pain, the Mayo Clinic explains. While some people have no symptoms or very mild symptoms, others may have intense pain, numbness, muscle weakness, or a tingling sensation. These symptoms tend to get worse over time.
Because of the way your nerves are laid out, when spinal stenosis occurs in your neck, it can cause numbness tingling, or weakness in your hand, arm, foot, or leg; problems with walking and balance; neck pain; and in severe situations, bowel or bladder issues. When it’s in your lower back, it can cause numbness, weakness, or tingling in your foot or leg; pain or cramping in one or both legs; and back pain.
Given that most cases of spinal stenosis happen in the lower back, “usually what people notice is a cramping or heavy feeling in their buttocks or thighs,” Mike Murray, M.D., an associate of orthopaedic surgery at Penn Medicine, tells SELF. “That’s usually worse with walking and standing, but it gets better with sitting or leaning forward.”
Every time you stand and walk, your spinal canal narrows, Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “In spinal stenosis patients, your nerves get squeezed and you have to sit down to get relief,” he says. “When you sit down, you open up the spinal canal.”
The most common cause of spinal stenosis is run-of-the-mill osteoarthritis, the Mayo Clinic says, but there are a variety of risk factors.
Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the cartilage on the ends of your bones gradually wears down over time, which causes pain, joint stiffness, and narrowing of the spine that sometimes results in spinal stenosis. By age 50, most people have some amount of damage due to osteoarthritis, so spinal stenosis is most common in older adults.
But some people are more likely to get it or to develop it earlier in life than others. For instance, some of us are simply born with a smaller-than-usual spinal canal, which may lead to pain at a younger age, Jessalyn Adam, M.D., attending sports medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF.
People can also develop spinal stenosis from bone spurs that grow into the spinal canal, a herniated disc (which is a bulging out of the soft cushions that are between the vertebrae in your back), a thickening of your ligaments (tough cords that help hold the bones of your spine together), a tumor inside your spinal cord, or a spinal injury, the Mayo Clinic says.
There are ways to treat spinal stenosis and alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with it.
Although you can’t really stop osteoarthritis once it stops, you can slow its progress and manage symptoms with physical therapy and medications like OTC pain relievers, the antidepressant duloxetine (which can help ease chronic pain), or steroid injections to relieve inflammation. These methods, as well as anti-seizure drugs (which can reduce pain caused by damaged nerves) and opioids for short-term pain relief, can also help manage the symptoms of spinal stenosis, should it develop, the Mayo Clinic says.
If those interventions don’t help, you may need surgery. “Surgery is very effective in alleviating the back and leg pain from stenosis,” Justin J. Park, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Maryland Spine Center at Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. But if you have a job where you have to forcefully bend, twist, and turn your spine a lot (say, throwing a baseball around all day), it can just be “too much” even if you’ve had surgery, Dr. Park says.
But, in most cases, patients are able to recover with the right treatment plan. “Every patient and circumstance is different, but spinal stenosis is an extremely treatable condition,” Dr. Anand says.