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.
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.
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:
Cervical spinal stenosis symptoms can include:
Spinal stenosis can cause a serious problem called acute cauda equina syndrome. Seek immediate medical attention if you have:
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
Other causes of spinal stenosis not related to degeneration may include:
Some factors can increase your risk for spinal degeneration and stenosis, including:
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:
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 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:
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:
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 to learn more about the Spine Program or to schedule an appointment with a specialist.