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Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of your spinal canal. It can cause pain, numbness and weakness in your neck and arms or lower back and legs, depending on where the stenosis is.

What is spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is where your spinal canal narrows causing the nerve tissue nearby to compress and inflame.

The space in the middle of your spinal column is called the spinal canal. It contains your spinal cord, which is the bundle of nerves connecting your body to your brain. If the spinal canal becomes too narrow, eg due to a slipped vertebra, it can compress the nerves inside.

This nerve compression causes pain, numbness and weakness, especially when walking or standing for a long time.

Spinal stenosis is most common in the over 60s. This is due to natural wear and tear of your bones and tissues in the spine, known as osteoarthritis.

Treatment depends on how bad your symptoms are and the location of the stenosis.

How to tell if you have spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis symptoms usually start gradually and include:

  • Back pain
  • Numbness, tingling and weakness in your limbs
  • Leg pain or arm pain

Where you feel symptoms depends on where your spinal canal is narrowed:

  • Lumbar spinal stenosis - the narrowing occurs in your lower back, causing pain and numbness in your buttocks and down your legs
  • Cervical spinal stenosis - the narrowing occurs in your neck, affecting your shoulders, arms and hands

It's common to experience unsteadiness when you walk. You may only be able to cover a short distance before needing to rest. This is because your spinal column is naturally more constricted while standing. Symptoms may be relieved by leaning forward.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for spinal stenosis

You should see your GP if you have symptoms that don’t go away after a few days.

If your GP suspects you have spinal stenosis, they'll probably send you to an orthopaedic consultant (specialising in bones and joints).

Your consultant will recommend one or more of these tests to diagnose and rule out other conditions:

  • A CT scan
  • An MRI scan
  • An X-ray

Causes of spinal stenosis

The most common causes of spinal stenosis causes are:

  • Overgrowth of bone into the spinal canal – due to natural wear and tear as you age (osteoporosis)
  • Spondylolisthesis – where one of your vertebrae has slipped out of position
  • Slipped disc – where one of the soft discs between adjacent vertebrae becomes damaged
  • Injury – dislodged bone from a fracture may damage the spinal canal

In rare cases, spinal stenosis can be caused by a tumour or sometimes people are born with a narrow spine (congenital stenosis).

Common treatments for spinal stenosis

Your doctor will first use non-invasive measures to help improve your symptoms.

These include:

  • Pain relief
  • Physiotherapy exercises to reduce symptoms
  • Steroid injections to relieve pain and inflammation in the spine
  • Anti-inflammatory medication (eg aspirin or ibuprofen)

Spinal decompression surgery may be recommended for severe cases or when other treatments are unsuccessful.