Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Common and not so typical symptoms of cervical and lumbar spinal stenosis.

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.
Man holding his low back in painGenerally, spinal stenosis affects your low back (lumbar spine) or your neck (cervical spine).

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

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.

  • When you are at the grocery store does leaning forward on the cart’s handle reduce your pain?

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.

  • It’s important to understand that claudication is not neurogenic or pseudoclaudication. While the symptoms of claudication are similar to pseudoclaudication, the cause is different. Claudication is caused by poor blood circulation in the leg muscles.

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.

  • Bowel and Bladder Alert: In severe cases of lumbar spinal stenosis, nerves that control the bladder or bowel may be compressed, which can lead to partial or complete incontinence. If you're having problems controlling your bladder or bowel, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

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:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty with balance; increased risk for falling.
  • Fine motor skills (eg, handwriting, buttoning a shirt) may be affected.

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.

Spinal Stenosis Doesn’t Always Cause Symptoms

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.

Updated on: 03/08/18
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Causes of Spinal Stenosis
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Causes of Spinal Stenosis

There are several causes of spinal stenosis, including aging, osteoarthritis, and a herniated disc. Spine surgeon-reviewed article explaining in clear language what could be causing your back pain or neck pain.
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