Skip to Main Content

MyVirginiaMason will be down for scheduled maintenance on June 26, at 6 p.m. to June 27, at 6 a.m. We apologize for the inconvenience.

What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis develops when spaces in your spine narrow. Stenosis can affect your spinal canal, the protective column of bones (vertebrae) that house your spinal cord. 

Narrowing can also occur in your neural foramen, the openings where nerve roots branch off your spinal cord and extend outward through openings in your vertebrae. Spinal stenosis restricts these openings and puts pressure on the nerve roots, causing pain. 

Spinal stenosis usually results from age-related degenerative changes to your spine and is most common in people over 60. It can affect your neck (cervical spinal stenosis) or low back (lumbar spinal stenosis). Stenosis in your mid back (thoracic spinal stenosis) is rare.

Spinal stenosis relief in the Puget Sound: Why choose us?

At our Spine Program, we understand that spinal stenosis can greatly impact your quality of life. That’s why we draw on a wide range of treatments to help you find relief as quickly as possible. 

Our spine experts include physiatrists (doctors with specialized training in physical medicine and rehabilitation) and spine surgeons. They focus on conservative (non-surgical) therapies first and reserve surgery as a last resort. We have a proven track record of excellent spinal stenosis outcomes thanks to our depth of expertise and individualized care.

What does spinal stenosis feel like?

Spinal stenosis symptoms can range from mild to severe. They tend to develop over time and get gradually worse. 

Lumbar spinal stenosis can lead to sciatica, a term describing symptoms of nerve compression in your lower back. You may experience: 

  • Low back pain
  • Pain that worsens when standing or walking
  • Pins-and-needles sensation in your feet
  • Shooting or radiating pain that runs through your buttocks, hips or legs
  • Weakness in your lower limbs

Cervical spinal stenosis symptoms can include: 

  • Neck pain
  • Pain that radiates through your shoulders, necks and hands
  • Tingling or an electric shock-like sensation in your arms
  • Weakness in your upper limbs

Spinal stenosis complications

Spinal stenosis can cause a serious problem called acute cauda equina syndrome. Seek immediate medical attention if you have: 

  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • No feeling in your legs
  • Trouble walking

What causes spinal stenosis?

There are a variety of reasons your spinal canal may get narrower over time. Age-related wear and tear cause changes to your vertebrae, intervertebral discs (spongy pads of cartilage that separate vertebrae) and other soft tissues in your back. This degeneration is generally referred to as spondylosis

Spinal stenosis may be the result of 

  • Bone spurs (extra bone growth around joints)
  • Bulging discs (intervertebral discs that protrude outward)
  • Degenerative disc disease (loss of strength and elasticity due to wear and tear on discs)
  • Herniated discs 
  • Osteoarthritis (loss of cartilage around joints)
  • Spondylolisthesis (forward slippage of a vertebra)

Other causes of spinal stenosis not related to degeneration may include: 

Spinal stenosis risk factors

Some factors can increase your risk for spinal degeneration and stenosis, including: 

  • Age: Adults over 60 are more likely to develop spinal stenosis.
  • Genetics: Sometimes, premature spine degeneration runs in families. 
  • Lifestyle: Smoking and being sedentary speed spinal degeneration.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese puts excess strain on your back.

Spinal stenosis diagnosis

Your doctor reviews your medical history, does a physical exam and discusses your symptoms. Give your doctor as much information about your symptoms as possible, including: 

  • What symptoms feel like (sharp pain, tingling, burning or weakness)
  • When symptoms started
  • Where you feel symptoms

During a physical exam, your doctor evaluates your spine’s shape. They also check your reflexes, sensation, muscle strength and gait (how you walk). Your doctor may ask you to perform certain movements, such as bending your back or neck or raising your leg. 

Your doctor may order an X-ray, MRI or CT scan if they think you have a spinal fracture, tumor or nerve damage. But most people don’t need imaging exams for mild to moderate spinal stenosis.

Spinal stenosis treatments

Spinal stenosis symptoms can make work, exercise and other day-to-day activities challenging. But the good news is that most people find relief from spinal stenosis pain without surgery. 

The providers at our Spine Program build customized treatment plans using the latest non-surgical therapies. If you do need surgery, you’re in the hands of the region’s leading minimally invasive spine surgeons.

  • We take a conservative approach to spinal stenosis treatment. We never want you to have surgery unnecessarily and only recommend surgery if we feel it’s the best treatment for you. 

    We find that most of our patients benefit greatly from a combination of non-surgical treatments. You may have treatment at our Spine Program, or we coordinate your care with other specialists at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health. 

    Non-surgical spinal stenosis treatments may include: 

    • Physical therapy
    • Prescription pain medication
    • Spinal steroid injections
  • People with severe spinal stenosis may need surgical treatment. During surgery, we remove material pressing on spinal nerve roots. The most common procedures for spinal stenosis are: 

    • Discectomy: We remove part of a herniated or bulging disc to relieve nerve compression.
    • Laminectomy: We remove some of the bone around the arch of your vertebra to give spinal nerve roots more room.

    Our spine surgeons routinely perform discectomies and laminectomies using minimally invasive techniques. This approach means we operate on your back or neck through very small incisions. Minimally invasive spine surgery helps you recover faster, with less pain and downtime.

Contact us

Contact us to learn more about the Spine Program or to schedule an appointment with a specialist.