Cervical Spinal Stenosis Symptoms and Causes

Cervical spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck and usually occurs in people over 50 years of age. The narrowing can occur at the center of your spine in the canals that branch off of your spine. It can also occur between the bones of your spine (vertebrae). As the canals narrow, they put pressure on your nerves and spinal cord and can cause pain. When the spinal canal narrows on the lower part of your spine, it is known as lumbar spinal stenosis. Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis develop gradually and worsen over time.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

In the early stages, you may not experience any symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis even though the condition can be seen on an X-ray. As pressure increases on the spinal cord, you may experience:

  • Stiffness, pain or numbness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands or legs
  • Balance and coordination problems, such as shuffling or tripping while walking, as a result of weakness and spasticity in your legs
  • Loss of your "position sense," the sensation that allows you to know where your arms and legs are when your eyes are closed
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control (incontinence)
     

Cervical Spinal Stenosis Causes

The leading cause of cervical spinal stenosis is the process of aging. The wear and tear on the spine over a period of 50 years or more can cause the cushions (discs) between your vertebrae to flatten and bulge. Eventually, the degenerated discs may develop tiny tears in their tough, fibrous outer covering. The tears cause the jelly-like substance in the disc's center to protrude and press on your spinal cord and nerve roots. Also, the tendons (tough rope-like cords) that hold the spine together can thicken and stiffen over time which narrows the spinal canal. Together, the degenerative changes of the thickening spinal tendons and the bulging discs can cause cervical spinal stenosis.

Other causes of cervical spinal stenosis are:

  • Spinal injuries in younger people such as car accidents and other trauma to the spine
  • Genetic disorders such as:
    • A narrow spinal canal
    • Scoliosis (curvature of the spine)
    • Paget's disease of the bone causes bones to be deformed or abnormally large. If it happens in the spine, it can cause cervical spinal stenosis.
    • Achondroplasia slows the rate of bone growth. If it occurs in the spine, babies can be born with cervical spinal stenosis
  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of bones)
  • Arthritis in the spine
  • Spinal tumors are abnormal growths that may press on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
     

Cervical Spinal Stenosis Treatment

Nonsurgical treatments for cervical spinal stenosis include pain medications, physical therapy and steroid injections. For more severe cases, spine surgery such as cervical laminectomy or cervical fusion may be recommended by your orthopaedist.

The multidisciplinary team of orthopaedic experts at North Shore-LIJ Orthopaedic Institute's Spine Services in New York treats cervical spinal stenosis as well as a broad range of spine conditions that can occur at any stage of life.

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