Spinal Stenosis

What is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is when the spaces around your spinal cord become progressively narrower, which can irritate, compress, or pinch the spinal cord and the nerves near it. It can also cause vertebrae to slide out of alignment.

Stenosis can develop anywhere along the spine but is most common in the lower back (lumbar canal stenosis) and neck (cervical spinal stenosis).

Symptoms can range from non-existent to extremely painful. If a nerve or the spinal cord are compressed for a long time, it’s possible to develop permanent paralysis or numbness.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Your symptoms depend on the location and severity of the stenosis, and they may not appear right away. Stenosis is usually a slow process that can eventually lead to symptoms, including:

Cervical Spinal Stenosis

  • Neck pain
  • Numbness or tingling of the arm, hand, leg, or foot
  • Feeling of weakness or clumsiness in the arm, hand, leg, or foot
  • Issues with balance
  • Loss of functioning in the hands (difficulty writing, for example)
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence in severe cases

Thoracic (Abdominal) Spinal Stenosis

  • Pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness at the level of the abdomen or below it
  • Issues with balance

Lumbar Canal Stenosis

  • Lower back pain
  • Sciatica
  • A heavy cramping feeling in one or both legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the buttocks, leg, or foot
  • Weakness in the leg or foot
  • Pain that gets worse when standing for long periods, walking, or walking downhill
  • Pain that improves when leaning, bending forward slightly, sitting, or walking uphill
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence in severe cases

Spinal stenosis usually develops slowly and may be visible on X-rays or other imaging tests before you ever feel symptoms. Anyone can develop it, but it’s most common over the age of fifty. Having another spinal injury or condition can increase the risk of developing it.

Causes include:

  • Osteoarthritis (the most common cause)
  • Bone spurs
  • Herniated disc (bulging discs)
  • Wear and tear due to aging
  • Thickened ligaments
  • Spinal injuries and fractures
  • Spinal cord tumors or cysts
  • Congenital spinal stenosis (born with a small spinal canal)
  • Scoliosis

It’s essential to see a healthcare provider right away if you develop numbness or weakness in your arms or legs. At your appointment, your healthcare provider may:

  • Discuss your medical history
  • Ask about the history of your symptoms
  • Give you a physical examination
  • Ask you to bend your back in different ways to pinpoint symptoms
  • Check your balance
  • Check your arm and leg strength

You may also have tests that show different views of your spine to help determine the location and severity of any problems. They might include:

  • X-rays
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • CT or CT myelogram

Treatment depends on the cause, location, and severity of your symptoms. Mild symptoms may respond to self-care. If not, your healthcare provider might recommend some of the following:

  • Self-care (heat, cold packs, exercise)
  • Medications (pain medications, antidepressants, anti-seizure medications)
  • Physical therapy
  • Steroid injections
  • Decompression (percutaneous image-guided lumbar decompression, or PILD)
  • Surgery

Can I lower my risk of developing spinal stenosis?
You may not be able to prevent spinal stenosis, but you can slow its progression or lower your risk by eating healthy, maintaining your ideal body weight, not smoking, having good posture, and exercising.

What surgical treatments are available?
There are several different surgical methods for treatment, but in general they:

Your healthcare provider can talk to you about your best option.

Can I have spinal stenosis in more than one area of my spine?
Yes, it can happen in more than one location at a time.

Can spinal stenosis cause permanent damage?
It’s rare but possible for spinal stenosis to progress enough to cause permanent symptoms like:

  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Issues with balance
  • Loss of bladder or bowel function (incontinence)
  • Paralysis
Quick Facts
  • When the spaces around the spinal cord narrow.

  • Pain can be due to pressure on spinal cord and nerves.

  • Is most common in neck and lumbar spine.

Spinal Stenosis Doctors
Shane Mangrum MD
Christopher Tomaras MD
David Tran MD
Raymond Walkup MD