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What Is Spinal Stenosis?

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Updated June 15, 2014

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What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a condition that occurs as the spinal canal narrows, restricting or compressing the nerve roots and spinal cord. According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), spinal stenosis is typically caused by osteoarthritis of the spinal column. Spinal stenosis refers to a narrowing that develops in the lumbar region of the spine (lower back). A similar process can affect the cervical spine (neck) or, on rare occasion, the thoracic region of the spine (upper back).

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis can be a congenital condition, but more often, it results from degenerative changes in the spine. Bony overgrowth from osteoarthritis, thickening of a ligament in the back, and bulging discs can contribute to the condition.

Other conditions that can cause spinal stenosis include: inflammatory spondyloarthritis, spinal tumors, trauma, Paget's disease, or previous surgery, according to the ACR.

What Symptoms Are Associated With Spinal Stenosis?

People who have lumbar spinal stenosis often have pain in their legs and lower back after walking. The pain subsides after sitting down or leaning over. In cases of cervical spinal stenosis, patients can have symptoms similar to lumbar stenosis but with prominent neck pain and peculiar sensations in the arms, poor leg function, or incontinence.

There also can be numbness, weakness, or cramping of the legs. Bowel, bladder, and sexual function may be affected and there can be some degree of leg paralysis with spinal stenosis too. Interestingly, not all patients with x-ray evidence of spinal stenosis develop symptoms.

How Is Spinal Stenosis Diagnosed?

Spinal stenosis can be diagnosed by a history and physical examination, but imaging studies (x-rays, CT scan, MRI) often are used to evaluate causes and severity of the disease.

How Is Spinal Stenosis Treated?

Exercise is important to maintain muscle strength and stability when walking. NSAIDs and cortisone injections are used to control pain and inflammation. Surgery, is a possibility, when all else fails. Most people with spinal stenosis do not require surgery though.

Sources:

Spinal Stenosis. American College of Rheumatology. September 2006.

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis. Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. 13th edition.
Published by the Arthritis Foundation.

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