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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spine in one or more of three areas:

  • Center of the spine
  • Canals where nerves branch out from the spine.
  • Space between the vertebrae

This narrowing puts pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, causing pain.

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?

Although young people born with a narrow spinal canal or who suffer traumatic injury to their spines can get spinal stenosis, it is most common in men and women over 50 years of age.

Aging and arthritis are the most common causes of spinal stenosis.

In the case of aging, the bands of tissue supporting the spine may harden and thicken; bones and joints may get bigger, reducing space; and individuals may get bone spurs (bulges on bone surface).

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis may both adversely impact the spine. Other causes may include:

  • Physical trauma
  • Tumors of the spine
  • Paget’s disease
  • Excessive fluoride in the body
  • Calcium deposits on ligaments

What are the Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis?

While spinal stenosis may be asymptomatic, some signs and symptoms of it may include:

  • Pain in neck or back
  • Numbness, weakness, or pain in extremities
  • Foot disorders
  • Pain traveling down the leg

What is Cauda Equina Syndrome?

Cauda equina syndrome is a rare, very serious form of spinal stenosis that affects a bundle of nerve roots (cauda equina) at the lumbar (lower end) of the spinal cord—these nerves become compressed and paralyzed, affecting sensation and movement. It can be caused by heredity, physical trauma, infection, tumor, ruptured disc or spinal fracture.

It is a surgical emergency, as failure to receive quick treatment to relieve this pressure can result in:

  • Permanent paralysis
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence
  • Loss of sexual sensation
  • Weakness
  • Pain or loss of feeling in one or both legs

Diagnosis of Spinal Stenosis

Your doctor will inquire about your medical history and conduct a physical examination, and may do the following tests:

  • X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan
  • Bone scan
  • Myelogram

Spinal stenosis can have many symptoms and causes, requiring treatment from doctors who specialize in particular aspects of the condition.

Your doctor may refer you to specialists such as:

  • Neurosurgeons
  • Neurologists
  • Physical therapists
  • Orthopedic surgeons
  • Rheumatologists

What Treatments are Offered?

Nonsurgical Options

Spinal stenosis can often be treated with a variety of nonsurgical options, including medications to treat swelling and relieve pain; bed rest or other limits in daily activity; physical therapy and exercises; and back braces and other orthotics.

Surgical Option

If you experience more serious symptoms of spinal stenosis, such as impairment of movement, incontinence or other problems of your nervous system, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Last UpdateJanuary 19, 2012