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Cervical Spinal Stenosis

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Topic Overview

What is cervical spinal stenosis?

Cervical spinal stenosis is the narrowing camera.gif of the spinal canal in the neck. The spinal canal is the open area in the bones (vertebrae) that make up the spinal column camera.gif. The spinal cord is a collection of nerves that runs through the spinal canal from the base of the brain to the lower back. These nerves allow us to feel, to move, and to control the bowel and bladder and other body functions. In cervical spinal stenosis, the spinal canal narrows and can squeeze and compress the nerve roots where they leave the spinal cord camera.gif, or it may compress or damage the spinal cord itself. The seven vertebrae between the head and the chest make up the cervical spine. Squeezing the nerves and cord in the cervical spine can change how the spinal cord functions and cause pain, stiffness, numbness, or weakness in the neck, arms, and legs. It can also affect your control of your bowels and bladder.

What causes cervical spinal stenosis?

Cervical spinal stenosis is usually caused by age-related changes in the shape and size of the spinal canal and so is most common in people older than age 50. The aging process can cause a "bulging of the discs"—the spongy discs between the bones of the spine bulge out farther than normal—or a thickening of tissues that connect bones (ligaments). Aging can also lead to destruction of tissues that cover bones (cartilage) and excessive growth of the bones in joints. These conditions can narrow the spinal canal (spinal stenosis).

In rare cases, the spinal canal is narrowed from birth because of the way the bones are formed.

What are the symptoms?

Many people older than age 50 have some narrowing of the spinal canal but do not have symptoms. Cervical spinal stenosis does not cause symptoms unless the spinal cord or nerves becomes squeezed. Symptoms usually develop gradually over a long period of time and may include:

  • Stiffness, pain, numbness, or weakness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, or legs.
  • Balance and coordination problems, such as shuffling or tripping while walking. Cervical spinal stenosis can be crippling if the spinal cord is damaged.
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control (incontinence).

How is cervical spinal stenosis diagnosed?

A diagnosis of cervical spinal stenosis usually is based on your history of symptoms and a physical exam. Your doctor will ask you if neck movements cause pain, numbness, or weakness. If cervical spinal stenosis is suspected, your doctor will recommend imaging tests of your neck and back to confirm the diagnosis and to see what is causing the narrowing of the spinal canal. Imaging tests that may be used include X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans. Your doctor will use the results of tests, including imaging and blood tests, to eliminate other diseases—such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and vitamin B12 deficiency—as the cause of your symptoms.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 13, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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