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Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal. The spinal canal is located within 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.
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
Some people are born with narrowed canals. Most often stenosis is a result of aging. Conditions that can cause spinal stenosis include:
Factors that increase your chance of spinal stenosis include:
- Being born with a narrow spinal canal
- Age: 50 or older
- Previous injury or surgery of the spine
- 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.
Tests may include:
- X-ray —a test that uses radiation to take pictures of structures inside the body; in this case, to check for abnormalities in the bones of the back including osteoarthritis, bone spurs, and obvious narrowing of the spinal canal
- CT scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the bony architecture of the back, which helps to evaluate the spinal canal
- MRI scan —a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of soft tissue, such as the spinal cord and the spinal nerves inside the back
Special exercises can help stabilize the spinal cord. Exercise can increase muscle endurance and mobility of the spine. This can relieve some pain. Exercises are often ineffective against spinal stenosis.
Wearing a corset or lumbar brace can help stabilize the spine. This may alleviate pain.
Surgery is reserved for severe cases.
- Decompression laminectomy —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 —two vertebrae (back bones) are fused together. This will provide stronger support for the spine. This is almost always done after decompression laminectomy.
Last reviewed November 2009 by Robert E. Leach, MD
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.