6 Things to Know About Spinal Stenosis

  • Senior man twisting as physical therapist or doctor examines back and spine
    Aching Back? Get the Facts About Spinal Stenosis – and What To Do About It
    Many people over the age of 50 begin to experience back pain or tingling in the arms or legs. Spinal stenosis usually causes this. Spinal stenosis occurs when nerve channels in the vertebrae of the spinal column (backbone) become narrowed. This narrowing puts pressure on the nerves, which causes the characteristic spinal stenosis symptoms of pain, numbness, or tingling. Fortunately, this condition usually responds well to non-invasive treatment, which reduces the chance you’ll need spinal stenosis surgery. Find out the causes of spinal stenosis and what you can do about low back or neck pain due to spinal stenosis.
  • Doctor looking at spinal X-ray
    1. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere along the spine.
    The definition of spinal stenosis is narrowing of the spinal column’s central canal or the foramina (side openings) of the vertebrae anywhere along the spine. The spinal cord passes through the central canal of the backbone, and, along the way, nerves exit the spinal cord through the sides of the vertebrae to provide the arms, legs, and other tissues with nervous functions. If the central canal or any of the foramina become narrowed, you can experience pain, tingling, or numbness anywhere from the neck and arms to the lower back and legs.
  • Man lifting box
    2. Spinal stenosis usually is caused by degenerative spine changes.
    Most of the time, spinal stenosis is caused by age-related changes to the spine, including wear-and-tear. Repetitive bending, twisting, and straining of the spine over a lifetime can cause a herniated disc or prompt bone spurs to grow in the vertebrae. Excess weight can intensify the problem. Other causes of spinal stenosis include trauma, such as a dislocated vertebra from a car accident and, occasionally, a spinal tumor. Some bone diseases and conditions, like Paget’s or scoliosis, can contribute to the development of stenosis, as well. Usually, though, spinal stenosis is a degenerative condition that occurs in people over age 50.
  • Rear view of three generation females walking on street at park
    3. Spinal stenosis may have a genetic component.
    Recent research has identified potential genetic links to spinal stenosis. While stenosis itself likely cannot be inherited, researchers have found that some people’s genes may put them at higher risk of developing a narrow spinal canal or vertebral foramina. Because this research is new and ongoing, doctors cannot yet use any of this data to identify your potential risk for developing spinal stenosis or to develop new treatments that might prevent narrowing of the spinal canal before it starts.
  • Senior men are in pain a stiff shoulder
    4. Spinal stenosis symptoms go beyond typical back pain.
    Back and neck pain can be caused by many different conditions, including simply muscle tightness. Spinal stenosis symptoms generally occur in people over the age of 50 and most often affect the lower back. If you experience low back or neck pain or numbness, tingling, or weakness in a shoulder, arm, or leg that don’t go away within a couple of weeks, you might be experiencing symptoms of stenosis. See a doctor if your symptoms include loss of bowel or bladder control or difficulty walking, as this could indicate serious nerve inflammation in your spine.
  • senior-woman-with-physical-therapist
    Physical therapy works well for spinal stenosis.
    For new, mild cases of spinal stenosis, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to improve flexibility and strength in your back muscles. Studies show this type of therapy works well for improving symptoms, especially for lumbar (lower back) stenosis. Your doctor also may recommend heat and cold packs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and other non-invasive treatment options. As a last resort, or for severe symptoms, your doctor may suggest spinal stenosis surgery to treat a bulging disc or remove bone spurs to widen vertebral openings.
  • Senior man working with trainer or physical therapist lifting small weights with arms
    6. You can reduce your risk of developing spinal stenosis.
    You can reduce your risk of developing the most common, degenerative type of lumbar stenosis by taking a few simple steps to promote spine health. Use good body mechanics whenever you lift objects and get help for moving anything heavy or bulky; avoid using lumbar braces, except with your doctor’s consent, as these can weaken your back muscles; develop good posture; and exercise regularly to maintain your flexibility and muscle strength, which will help keep your spine aligned and help you achieve a healthy body weight. These simple acts can help you avoid experiencing excessive wear-and-tear on your back, which leads to spinal stenosis.
6 Things to Know About Spinal Stenosis | Symptoms, Hereditary Causes & Surgery

About The Author

As “the nurse who knows content,” Elizabeth Hanes, RN, works with national and regional healthcare systems, brands, agencies and publishers to produce all types of consumer-facing content. Formerly a perioperative and cosmetic surgery nurse, Elizabeth today uses her nursing knowledge to inform her writing on a wide variety of medical, health and wellness topics.
  1. Spinal Stenosis. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000441.htm
  2. Spinal Stenosis. U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/spinal-stenosis#tab-overview
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  4. Spinal Stenosis Animation. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/spinal-stenosis-animation/
  5. Physical Therapy is as Good as Surgery and Less Risky for One Type of Lower Back Pain. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/physical-therapy-as-good-as-surgery-and-less-risky-for-one-type-of-lower-back-pain-201504097863
  6. Battie MC, Ortega-Alonso A, et al. Lumbar spinal stenosis is a highly genetic condition partly mediated by disc degeneration. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2014 Dec; 66(12): 3505–3510. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4308556/
  7. Cheung JPY, Kao PYP, et al. Etiology of developmental spinal stenosis: A genome‐wide association study. J Orthopedic Research. 2017 Oct; 36(4): 1262-1268. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jor.23746
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Apr 6
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