It’s important to recognize and understand the potential symptoms of spinal stenosis because having this knowledge can help you obtain an early diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms typically develop when the spinal canal narrows and/or nerve roots are compressed, causing neural irritation, inflammation and pain. The lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spinal levels are commonly affected by this age-related and gradually progressive disorder. Symptoms may inhibit your ability to move without discomfort, pain and/or neurological signs, such as tingling sensations and numbness that may radiate (travel) into another part of your body.
The most common symptom of spinal stenosis is low back, buttock and back of the thigh pain that worsens with standing and walking. These symptoms are called neurogenic claudication. Many people with lumbar spinal stenosis experience symptoms only when they are standing or active. Often, the discomfort temporarily eases when bending forward and is relieved by sitting down.
This is a rather common scenario for people with spinal stenosis in their low back. Pain that eases when you bend forward, sit, or lie down is typical of lumbar spinal stenosis.
Other common symptoms include low back pain and lumbar radiculopathy. Widely known as sciatica, lumbar radiculopathy is pain, numbness, weakness, and/or tingling sensations that radiate (travel) downward from the affected level in the low back into the buttocks and legs. Some people experience pain in both legs, though one leg can be worse than the other.
Spinal stenosis in your neck can cause cervical radiculopathy—symptoms may include pain accompanied by tingling sensations, numbness and/or weakness. These symptoms may radiate downward from your neck into one or both shoulders, arms and/or hands. The pain caused by cervical spinal stenosis may be described as acute, episodic, occasional, or it may become chronic; it’s intensity can vary from mild to severe.
Other symptoms may include:
On the potentially severe end of cervical spinal stenosis symptoms are those associated with cervical myelopathy. Cervical myelopathy occurs when the spinal canal narrows to the point that it compresses the spinal cord in your neck. While pinched nerves in your neck may affect your shoulders, arms and/or hands, myelopathy can involve both your arms and legs. Common symptoms of cervical myelopathy include neck pain, stiffness, tingling sensations, numbness, weakness, clumsiness, balance problems, difficulty walking, bowel and/or bladder problems, and sexual dysfunction.
Sometimes an imaging study (eg, MRI, CT scan) detects a spine disorder for which a patient has no symptoms. That is one reason why imaging tests are performed to confirm a diagnosis, which is supported by results from the physical/ neurological exam, medical history, and symptoms. Many people who have undergone an x-ray or other imaging test for a non-spine-related matter have discovered they have spondylosis, osteophytes, and/or a bulging disc. Yet, they never knew it because they were not symptomatic.
Spinal stenosis has been referred to as the gray hair of the spine, meaning it’s often an age-related and gradual process of physical change. It may take time for the symptoms of cervical or lumbar spinal stenosis to become apparent. If you have neck or low back pain and symptoms that persist or worsen, talk with your doctor.