Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal. The spinal canal is located in the backbone. It is a small space that holds the nerve roots and spinal cord. If this space becomes smaller, it can squeeze the nerves and the spinal cord. This causes pain and other symptoms. Stenosis can occur anywhere along the spinal cord. It is most common in the low back (lumbar) region.
Some people are born with narrowed canals. Most often stenosis is a result of aging. Conditions that can cause spinal stenosis include:
Spinal stenosis is more common in people aged 50 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of spinal stenosis include:
- Being born with a narrow spinal canal
- Previous injury or surgery of the spine
Spinal stenosis may cause:
- Numbness, weakness, cramping, or pain in the legs and thighs
- Radiating pain down the leg
- Abnormal bowel and/or bladder function
- Decreased sensation in the feet causing difficulty placing the feet when walking
- Loss of sexual function
- Partial or complete paralysis of legs
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Imaging tests that evaluate your spine and surrounding structures may include:
Medications that relieve pain and inflammation include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Corticosteroid injections
Special exercises can help stabilize the spinal cord. Exercise can increase muscle endurance and mobility of the spine. This can relieve some pain. Sometimes exercises are ineffective against spinal stenosis.
Wearing a corset or lumbar brace can help stabilize the spine. This may relieve pain.
Surgery is reserved for severe cases.
- Decompression laminectomy—This is the removal of bony spurs or increased bone mass in the spinal canal. This can free up space for the nerves and the spinal cord.
- Spinal fusion—This is when two vertebrae (back bones) are fused together. This will provide stronger support for the spine. This is almost always done after decompression laminectomy.
There are no guidelines for preventing spinal stenosis.
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
The Arthritis Society
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Berkow R. The Merck Manual of Medical Information. Home Edition. New York, NY: Merck Research Laboratories; 1999.
Lumbar spinal stenosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 20, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2014.
Snyder DL, Doggett D, et al. Treatment of degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis. Am Fam Physician. 2004;70(3):517-520.
Spinal stenosis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Spinal_Stenosis/default.asp. Updated January 2013. Accessed September 29, 2014.
12/17/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: de Schepper El, Overdevest GM, et al. Diagnosis of lumbar spinal stenosis: an updated systematic review of the accuracy of diagnostic tests. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Apr 15;38(8):E469-81.
Last reviewed August 2014 by Teresa Briedwell, DPT, OCS
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.