Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of one or more areas in your spine — most often in your neck or lower back. This narrowing can put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves at the level of compression.
Depending on which nerves are affected, spinal stenosis can cause pain or numbness in your legs, back, neck, shoulders or arms; limb weakness and incoordination; loss of sensation in your extremities; and problems with bladder or bowel function. Pain is not always present, particularly if you have spinal stenosis in your neck.
Spinal stenosis is commonly caused by age-related changes in the spine. In severe cases of spinal stenosis, doctors may recommend surgery to create additional space for the spinal cord or nerves.
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if you have numbness or weakness in your back, legs, neck or arms.
Many people have evidence of spinal stenosis on X-rays, but have no signs or symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they often start gradually and worsen over time. The most common parts of the spine affected by spinal stenosis are the neck and lower back. Symptoms vary, depending on the location of the stenosis.
Numbness or weakness. Spinal stenosis in your upper (cervical) spine can cause numbness, weakness or tingling in a leg, foot, arm or hand. You may drop things more often or have a tendency to fall.
Neck or shoulder pain. This may occur if the nerves in your neck are compressed. However, cervical spinal stenosis often causes no pain. And neck pain can be caused by problems other than spinal stenosis.
Loss of bowel or bladder control. In severe cases of cervical spinal stenosis, nerves to the bladder or bowel may be affected, leading to incontinence.
Compressed nerves in your lower (lumbar) spine can cause pain or cramping in your legs when you stand for long periods of time or when you walk. The discomfort usually eases when you bend forward or sit down.
Many different types of problems can reduce the amount of space within the spinal canal. The most common of these problems are related to degeneration and the aging process. Other causes range from birth defects to benign or cancerous tumors.