7 Surprising Facts About Spinal Stenosis

  • Doctor pointing anatomical spine in medical office
    Spinal Stenosis Facts
    Spinal stenosis is a common cause of back and neck pain. This condition is characterized by a narrowing of the normal space that extends the length of the spine. Any narrowing can cause nerve compression and, ultimately, pain and dysfunction. If you have spinal stenosis, the more you know about it, the better equipped you’ll be to discuss your diagnosis and treatment options with your doctor and other providers involved in your care. Learn more about lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) stenosis and how advances in spinal stenosis surgery have improved spinal stenosis treatment outcomes.

  • Senior man in carpentry workshop with back pain or nerve pain
    1. Spinal stenosis is common in people over age 50.
    The bones of the spine create a channel for the spinal cord, a complex bundle of nerves that connects the brain to the rest of the body. As people age, this channel often narrows as years of wear and tear take their toll on the bones of the spine. Spinal stenosis occurs mostly in people older than 50. However, young people who have suffered spinal injuries can also develop spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is the most common reason for back surgery in people over age 65.

  • Middle aged Caucasian woman with arm pain at doctor
    2. There are two types of spinal stenosis.
    Your spine extends from the base of your skull to your tailbone. If you have a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck area, you have cervical spinal stenosis. If the narrowed area is located in the lower back region, you have lumbar spinal stenosis. Symptoms depend on which nerve(s) are pinched or compressed. Symptoms of cervical stenosis include neck pain and numbness, tingling or weakness in a hand, arm, foot or leg. Lumbar stenosis can cause back pain as well as numbness, weakness or tingling in a foot or leg. Other symptoms of lumbar stenosis include leg pain or cramping with standing.

  • Tennis player with back pain
    3. There is no cure for spinal stenosis.
    Spinal stenosis is a progressive condition, like arthritis. Without treatment, the spinal canal will continue to narrow over time and symptoms may become more severe. However, many people have narrowing of the spine and do not experience symptoms. Medical and surgical treatment can decrease the symptoms of spinal stenosis and improve function. According to the American College of Rheumatology, regular exercise, medication and surgery can provide relief. Your doctor can help you understand the severity of your spinal stenosis, as well as available treatment options and what to expect with each.

  • seniors-stretching-in-class
    4. Exercise may improve spinal stenosis symptoms.
    Exercise can’t fix spinal stenosis, but it can decrease pain and improve function. Building the muscles of the arms and legs can result in improved balance and mobility. Strengthening the muscles of the back, abdomen and buttocks will provide additional support to the spine, which may decrease pain. A physical therapist can evaluate your current level of functioning and teach you specific exercises to increase your strength. Importantly, a physical therapist can also show you which exercises might trigger a worsening of symptoms.

  • Doctor showing patient spine x-ray
    5. Surgery is the mainstay of spinal stenosis treatment.
    An estimated 20% of people with spinal stenosis improve substantially without surgery. Of course, if your symptoms are mild or come and go, you probably don’t need surgery right away. Exercise and over-the-counter pain medication may be sufficient to control your discomfort. More severe symptoms may respond to non-surgical medical treatment, including prescription medication or steroid injections. If medication cannot adequately control symptoms, surgery can help.

  • top dressing on back after laminectomy, a spinal surgery to relieve compression
    6. Spinal stenosis surgery is tailored to the patient.
    Doctors use many different types of surgery, including laminectomy, laminoplasty, foraminotomy, and spinal fusion to treat spinal stenosis. The type of surgery spine surgeons recommend depends on the location and severity of the spinal narrowing, as well as the patient’s overall health and preference and the physician’s experience. The goal of surgery is to enlarge the spinal canal and relieve pressure on the nerves. A laminectomy is the most commonly performed surgery for spinal stenosis. During a laminectomy, surgeons remove part of the bone covering the spinal canal. It is a type of spinal ‘decompression’ surgery.

  • smiling-woman-in-swimming-pool
    7. Recovery continues months after surgery.
    Most patients experience a significant improvement in symptoms after surgery. However, full recovery can take months. A 2017 review of more than 60 clinical studies found that patients reported substantial reductions in pain and disability in the first three months after surgery. According to the North American Spine Society, nerve function—and therefore, pain and motor function—may continue to improve up to 18 months after surgery as the spinal nerves heal.

7 Surprising Facts About Spinal Stenosis

About The Author

Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN is a Registered Nurse-turned-writer. She’s also the creator of BuildingBoys.net and co-creator/co-host of the podcast On Boys: Real Talk about Parenting, Teaching & Reaching Tomorrow’s Men.
  1. Spinal Stenosis. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/spinalstenosis.html
  2. Spinal Stenosis. American College of Rheumatology. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Spinal-Stenosis
  3. Spinal Stenosis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-stenosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352961?p=1
  4. Spinal Stenosis. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17499-spinal-stenosis
  5. Treating Lumbar Spinal Stenosis. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Treating_lumbar_spinal_stenosis
  6. Fritsch CG, e. (2019). The clinical course of pain and disability following surgery for spinal stenosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur Spine J 26:324–335 Retrieved from https://repositorio.unesp.br/bitstream/handle/11449/173288/2-s2.0-84979258027.pdf?sequence=1
  7. Cervical Laminoplasty. North American Spine Society. https://www.spine.org/KnowYourBack/Treatments/Surgical-Options/Cervical-Laminoplasty
  8. Maeda T, Hashizume H, Yoshimura N, et al. Factors associated with lumbar spinal stenosis in a large-scale, population-based cohort: The Wakayama Spine Study. PLoS One. 2018; 13(7): e0200208. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6051614/
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Nov 3
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