Spinal stenosis is a common spinal condition. It creates a narrowing of the spinal canal thereby pinching the nerves. The bones of your spine protect your spinal cord by creating a space for the nerves to travel through. Over time, spinal stenosis may develop which compresses the spinal cord. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere throughout the spine, but it is most common in the lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) regions. Spinal stenosis occurs when the discs lose water content and become less “spongy” as we age, resulting in a loss of the disc height. As the disks lose height, they bulge and harden causing narrowing of the spinal canal.
Patients with lumbar (low back) spinal stenosis have difficulty walking more than two or three blocks or standing up straight for an extended period of time. Many patients with spinal stenosis can walk longer distances if they lean forward, such as when holding onto a shopping cart. This is known as a “shopping cart sign.” Sitting relieves the symptoms of spinal stenosis. Sitting creates flexion within the spine, opening the space for the spinal cord. Spinal stenosis symptoms are made worse by leaning backward. Cervical stenosis occurs in the neck region and is a more serious condition generally requiring surgery. Balance and walking is very difficult with this condition. The blood supply to the spinal cord is disrupted causing irreversible damage to the spinal cord. This is called “myelomalacia”. Cervical stenosis may cause incoordination of your hands and feet.
Patients typically drop objects frequently and have difficulty manipulating small objects. Once these symptoms start, surgery cannot reverse them. Surgery is performed to halt their progression. Surgery for cervical stenosis is therefore performed early in the disease process. You should have a complete evaluation by a spinal specialist if you develop any symptoms of spinal stenosis.