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Spinal stenosis

3-minute read

Spinal stenosis, or spinal canal stenosis, is a narrowing of the canal in which the spinal cord sits. The narrowing can put pressure on the nerves in your back, which can cause pain and weakness in your arms or legs.

Surgery for spinal stenosis involves widening the canal to relieve the pressure on your nerves.

What causes spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is usually caused by arthritis. Some people are born with a narrowed spinal canal, which puts them at greater risk. Spinal stenosis can happen after a disc prolapse (a ‘slipped disc’, or a problem with the spongy discs between the bones of your spine).

Spinal stenosis can also be caused when a thickened ligament bulges into the spinal cord, by a tumour, or by an injury to the back.

The most common form of spinal stenosis is in the lower back (called a lumbar stenosis). It can also happen at the top of your spine (called a cervical stenosis).

What are the symptoms of spinal stenosis?

Many people don’t experience any symptoms, even if the spinal stenosis shows up on a scan.

When symptoms start, they usually get worse over time. The symptoms depend on which nerves are affected. They include:

  • numbness, weakness or tingling in a hand, arm, foot or leg
  • problems with walking and balance
  • neck pain
  • problems with the bowel or bladder
  • pain or cramping in one or both legs, which is better when you bend forward
  • back pain

Treatment for spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is usually diagnosed using an x-ray, MRI or CT scan.

Your doctor may recommend pain relievers and physiotherapy to build up your strength, flexibility and balance. They may recommend injections of steroids into your back to reduce pain and inflammation.

If you are very disabled by the symptoms or other treatments don’t work, surgery called a laminectomy may be an option. This operation removes part of the vertebra (spinal bone), along with some ligaments, to create space and take the pressure off your nerves. Sometimes it also involves a fusion (joining two bones together).

Most people are advised to try other treatments first before resorting to surgery.

What you can do

You may be able to control the pain with over the counter pain medicines or with hot or cold packs. Being a healthy weight and exercising (under the guidance of a physiotherapist) can also reduce the symptoms.

If your balance is affected, using a cane or walker will make you more stable and will help reduce the pain because you are leaning forward.

More information

About laminectomy

More information can be found at Neurosurgical Society of Australasia.

About surgical procedures

Visit the healthdirect surgical procedures page to learn more about surgical procedures in general, with information including:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2018

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