What is cervical spinal stenosis?

Cervical spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal in the neck becomes narrowed and the nerve roots become compressed when they leave the spinal cord. The cervical spine is comprised of the seven vertebrae between the head and the chest. When the nerves become compressed, you may experience pain, stiffness, numbness or weakness in the neck, arms and legs.

Causes of cervical spinal stenosis

Cervical spinal stenosis occurs as people age and the shape and size of the spinal column change. As you age, your discs may begin to bulge, ligaments may start to thicken, the cartilage may begin to degenerate or excess bone may grow in the joints. When any of these things occur, the spinal canal can become narrower and compress the nerves. 

Risk factors for cervical spinal stenosis

A variety of factors can increase your likelihood of developing cervical spinal stenosis including:

  • Age — Cervical spinal stenosis is most common in people over 50 years old.
  • Genetics — If you have a family history of cervical stenosis or similar conditions, you are more likely to develop cervical stenosis as well.
  • Smoking — Cigarette smoking can constrict blood vessels causing cervical stenosis.
  • Previous injury — If you had a spinal injury earlier in your life, you are more likely to develop cervical spinal stenosis later in life.
  • Obesity — Overweight or obese people have more stress on their spine, which can increase your likelihood of developing cervical spinal stenosis.

Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis

Cervical stenosis symptoms develop gradually. Many patients do not experience symptoms until the spinal cord becomes squeezed.

When symptoms do arise, they may include:

  • Pain in the neck that can radiate to the shoulders, arms, hands or legs
  • Stiffness, numbness or weakness in the neck that can radiate to arms, legs, hands or shoulders
  • Coordination issues 
  • Paralysis (if spinal cord is damaged)
  • Incontinence — loss of bladder or bowel control

Diagnosis for cervical spinal stenosis

If you have been suffering from back or spinal pain for more than a couple days, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms, take a full medical history, perform a neurological function exam, determine if you have movement issues in the spine and order diagnostic imaging testing such as:

X-ray — x-ray images of the spine can help determine what is causing your symptoms.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scan — an MRI or CT scan can produce detailed images of the spinal cord and surrounding structures to determine if there is a bulging or herniated disc or bone spur.

Myelogram — a myelogram is a CT scan using contrast dye. During the procedure, contrast dye is injected into the spinal canal to determine what is causing your symptoms.

Treatment for cervical spinal stenosis

Many patients can relieve their symptoms with conservative treatments such as rest, over-the-counter medications, physical therapy or epidural steroid injections.

If your doctor is concerned about long-term nerve damage, your symptoms are severe and intensifying, or you have progressive weakness in your muscles, surgical treatment may be necessary. Decompression surgery can relieve the pressure on the nerves by removing pieces of bone, discs and/or tissue that is pressing on the nerve roots. After decompression surgery, spinal fusion or stabilization surgery will provide stability to the spine in areas where pieces were removed.


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