DEAR DR. DONOHUE: What do you have to say about spinal stenosis? I have trouble with my legs and thought it was poor circulation through the arteries. My doctor says it’s spinal stenosis. I can’t find much information on it. Is there anything that can be done? – F.C.

The spinal cord is an extension of the brain, and it carries messages from the brain to all body structures and all body muscles. It’s only as wide as the little finger, and it’s quite fragile. Nature protects it by encasing it in the backbones, the vertebrae. It travels through those bones in a tunnel, the spinal canal, to the lower back. All along the way it sprouts nerves to deliver messages to all parts – organs, muscles, tissues and glands.

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the canal. The narrow passageway presses on spinal nerves or on the spinal cord to produce a number of symptoms, depending what’s pressed and where the pressing takes place. In the back, achy, burning or cramping pain develops there and often in the buttocks and legs. Leg muscles might become weak. Arthritis, which leads to the formation of spurs and calcium deposits, is an important cause of spinal stenosis.

The usual arthritis medicines often help the pain of spinal stenosis – Tylenol, ibuprofen and the like. Physical therapists can teach exercises that help open the spinal canal and ease symptoms. A simple exercise is to lie on a firm bed and pull a bent knee toward the chest. Hold it in the pulled position for 15 seconds, return it to the starting position and then pull the other knee to the chest and hold it there. At first, five pulls on each knee is enough, but week by week, increase the number of pulls and the time spent doing them. Don’t do this exercise if it hurts your back.

Sometimes surgery is the only way to open the canal.

The booklet on back pain discusses this common complaint and its many treatments. Readers can order a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue – No. 303, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6.75 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Topic: electrolytes. Tell me all you know about them. Where do they come from? Were they in our bodies at birth? What do they do?

I drink Gatorade, which, I am told, has electrolytes in it. Tell me what other foods or drinks have electrolytes. – P.G.

The word “electrolytes” is a chemical term. They’re compounds that dissolve in a fluid like water, and their component parts, when separated in the fluid, carry an electrical charge. Salt – sodium chloride, NaCl – when put in water dissolves into sodium and chloride. The sodium part has a positive charge; the chloride part, a negative charge.

Electrolytes are found in blood, sweat, tears and all body fluids and all body cells. They’re there from birth. They keep us in electric balance. They participate in acid-base equilibrium. They’re necessary for nerve impulse transmission, heartbeats, muscle contraction and just about every process that transpires in the body.

The most important body electrolytes are sodium and potassium – both positive electrolytes – and bicarbonate and chloride – both negative electrolytes. You don’t have to search far to find foods and drinks with electrolytes. They’re in just about everything. Pure water is an exception.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I took an elderly friend to her doctor. When she got back into the car, she burst into tears. The doctor sat with his back to her the whole time. Why would a doctor be so rude to a patient who thinks he walks on water? – M.C.

It is boorish not to face a patient while talking to her or him. I know some doctors who do this because they write as they talk or they enter information into a computer. Tell your friend that the doctor was not intentionally ignoring her. He wasn’t considering what he was doing. He might think he walks on water, but he really doesn’t.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am a single female, 28 years old. I have taken birth control pills for four years. Now I understand that they can cause the growth of fibroid tumors. I want to stay on these pills, but I don’t want fibroids. What should I do? – S.S.

Fibroids are growths of the uterus muscle. The muscle is actually the wall of the uterus. Fibroid muscle growths project into the uterine cavity. They’re very common, and often they don’t produce symptoms.

Fibroids are not listed as a side effect of birth control pills. Estrogen might theoretically influence fibroid growth, but I have never heard anyone say that it causes fibroids. Estrogen is a component of many birth control pills.

Unless your doctor has told you that you have fibroids that are growing larger, there’s no reason for you to give up birth control pills.

Birth control pills are not the only way to prevent pregnancy. If you want me to explain other methods of contraception, drop me another line.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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