Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the bones and discs of the spine have become enlarged or arthritic and are compressing the spinal cord. Compression of the spinal cord can cause a wide range of symptoms and may eventually lead to permanent loss of nerve function (paralysis). Treatment for spinal stenosis can relieve pressure on the spinal cord, alleviate your symptoms, and prevent irreversible nerve damage from occurring.

  • Symptoms

  • Treatment


Stenosis, which means “narrowing” or “choking”, can occur anywhere along the spine. The two main types are cervical stenosis (stenosis in the neck region of the spine) and lumbar stenosis (stenosis in the lower back region of the spine).

Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis can include:

  • Pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling in the shoulders, arms, hands, fingers
  • Problems with coordination, motor function, balance, reflexes, dexterity
  • Pain may be dull or sharp
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Headaches
  • Often, minimal or no pain in the neck
  • Incontinence
  • Symptoms that go through cycles of remaining stable and flaring up
  • Symptoms may worsen or alleviate during certain activities
  • Cervical myelopathy (severe cases)

Symptoms of lumbar spinal stenosis can include:

  • Pain (often severe) in the lower back, buttocks, and/or legs
  • Tingling, weakness, numbness, or cramping in the legs
  • Pain that inhibits daily activities
  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Incontinence
  • Symptoms that go through cycles of remaining stable and flaring up
  • Symptoms may worsen or alleviate during certain activities or while sitting, lying down, and leaning forward
  • “Shopping cart sign” (leaning over to alleviate intense pain)

Frequently Asked Questions

How is spinal stenosis diagnosed?

Stenosis of the spine is often a missed diagnosis. Because symptoms occur gradually over time and may also be caused by other conditions, it can be difficult to pinpoint their cause. In addition to the symptoms listed above, a confirmation of osteoarthritis and/or degenerative spondylolisthesis (slipped disc) may help to provide a diagnosis. Most often, spinal stenosis affects individuals over the age of 50, but younger patients can sometimes develop spinal stenosis due to injury or spinal deformities. A diagnosis will be confirmed with a detailed history and examination, including diagnostic testing. Testing can determine precisely where the issue lies and whether other areas of the spine have been affected as well.

What are the risks of not treating spinal stenosis?

Lumbar spinal stenosis can be progressive, but isn’t always. This condition should be carefully monitored over time. In some cases, conservative treatments can maintain quality of life long-term. But if lumbar stenosis progresses, the symptoms may become debilitating, and surgery may be recommended to provide long-lasting relief and prevent long-term damage.

Cervical spinal stenosis tends to progressively worsen over time. This condition can eventually lead to cervical myelopathy, in which spinal cord cells die and there is an irreversible loss of bodily function. Cervical stenosis should be treated to prevent permanent nerve damage and paralysis, and this will often require surgical intervention.

If you believe you may have spinal stenosis, it is important to get evaluated by an orthopedic spine surgeon to determine how best to manage your symptoms and protect your long-term health.

Do I need surgery for spinal stenosis?

Most patients with lumbar stenosis will be advised to try conservative treatment methods first. If symptoms are debilitating or if loss of nerve function is determined, surgery will likely be recommended.

Some patients with cervical stenosis can benefit from conservative treatment methods, but most will need to undergo surgery. Surgical candidates include those for whom symptoms inhibit daily function or present an increased risk of nerve damage due to spinal compression.