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What is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a condition that occurs when spaces within your spine begin to narrow, putting pressure on your spinal cord and nerves. The word “stenosis” means narrowing. As spinal stenosis becomes more severe, there can be painful compression or squeezing of the spinal cord and its nerves. The condition is often caused by the natural aging process or arthritis, and commonly occurs in the neck (cervical stenosis) and lower back (lumbar stenosis).

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that runs through your vertebrae. When stenosis (narrowing) occurs, you may experience persistent pain, tingling in your arms and legs, numbness, and muscle weakness. In severe forms, you may experience problems with loss of balance, coordination, bladder control, or bowel function.

lumbar spinal stenosis illustration


Spinal stenosis may cause no signs or symptoms in some people. Others may experience the following:

  • Back or neck pain that can range from mild to severe
  • Tingling in arms and legs
  • Numbness, cramping, or weakness in the arms or legs
  • Difficulty standing or walking
  • Difficulty with hand coordination (with tasks like buttoning or zipping)
  • Unexpected or unexplained trouble with balance and coordination
  • Problems with bladder control or bowel function
  • Loss of sexual ability

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should consult with your physician. Some of the symptoms of spinal stenosis could also indicate a more serious underlying medical condition.


For many patients, spinal arthritis (called spondylosis) may be the primary cause of spinal stenosis. Arthritis is a condition caused by the breakdown of joints of the spine.

Other causes of spinal stenosis may include:

  • Disc herniation
  • Past injuries to your spine
  • Tumors
  • Family history of spine problems

Some people are born with spinal stenosis. For them, symptoms can begin to surface between the ages of 30 and 50.

Diagnosis and Tests

To diagnose spinal stenosis, your physician will ask you about your symptoms. The physician will do a medical history and inquire about the degree and duration of pain. Imaging tests will often be ordered to identify the cause of the symptoms.

Tests to Diagnose Spinal Stenosis X-rays
Traditional x-rays can visually depict the alignment of the vertebrae. If previous x-rays have been performed, a radiologist can compare the x-rays to see if there are any changes over time.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
An MRI allows excellent visualization of the soft tissues of the spine, including the nerves and spinal cord. The images can show tumors, growths, inflammation, and even damage to discs, ligaments, and cartilage.

Computerized tomography (CT) myelogram
A CT scan shows the bony detail of the spine and when combined with a myelogram can demonstrate any stenosis or narrowing and pressure on the nerves or spinal cord.


There is currently no cure for spinal stenosis. With proper treatments and exercise, most people with spinal stenosis will live normal lives.

Treatments for Spinal Stenosis

  • Medicines such as anti-inflammatories
  • Activity modifications
  • Physical therapy and exercises
  • Weight loss
  • Corticosteroid Injections

In severe cases of spinal stenosis, surgery may be recommended.


General healthy lifestyle habits can often help prevent spinal stenosis. Anything that you can do to prevent any amount of degeneration to your spine can help prevent the occurrence of spinal stenosis. Since the condition is often caused by the natural aging process, there are several steps you can take to prevent spinal stenosis.

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stretch daily
  • Avoid smoking
  • Practice good posture
  • When lifting, use good posture and proper lifting techniques

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