What Is Spinal Stenosis?

What Is Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces within the spine, which places pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerves. Spinal stenosis most often occurs in the lower back (lumbar spinal stenosis) followed by the neck (cervical spinal stenosis), and less commonly in the thoracic (middle) spine.

diagram of spinal stenosis

What Causes Spinal Stenosis?


As many as 90 percent of reported cases of spinal stenosis result from degenerative changes that occur with aging. In other cases, spinal stenosis results from an injury or other spine condition. One or more of the following conditions can contribute to spinal stenosis:  

Spinal stenosis risk factors

You are most at risk for spinal stenosis if you are over age 50, due to normal wear and tear on the spine over the years that can compress the spinal canal. When people under the age of 50 have spinal stenosis, it is usually due to a genetic predisposition called "congenital spinal stenosis," which means someone is born with a small spinal canal. This can put pressure on the nerves and/or spinal cord. 

People with spinal deformities such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and those with spondylolisthesis (slippage of one vertebra over another) also have a greater risk of developing spinal stenosis.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis


What does spinal stenosis feel like? Many people with the condition do not experience any symptoms in the beginning. Later, as the stenosis progresses and pressure on the spinal cord or nerves gets worse, there may be pain, weakness, or numbness in the legs, and/or problems with urination and bowel control.

Radiating pain

Spinal stenosis can cause pain that radiates into the limbs (radiculopathy).

  • With lumbar spinal stenosis, there is compression of a lumbar nerve root that can cause lower back pain, tingling, numbness, weakness, or loss of sensation that extends into the hips, buttocks, one or both legs, and the feet. This discomfort feels worse during walking or standing and may be eased by leaning forward, such as pushing a shopping cart or sitting.
  • People with cervical spinal stenosis may have headaches or feel numbness, weakness, or reduced coordination of the arms and hands. They may have difficulty doing normally simple activities such as gripping objects, buttoning, tying, writing, and typing. In severe cases, an imbalance in your gait can occur.

Frequent Urination and Bowel Control Issues

Frequent urination or loss of bladder and bowel control is a serious symptom that requires immediate medical attention. It may be a marker of severe spinal stenosis due to greatly increased pressure on the nerve roots controlling the bladder or bowel ("cauda equina syndrome"). See a doctor as soon as you can for treatment.

What Happens if Spinal Stenosis Is Left Untreated?

If Left Untreated

If spinal stenosis is not treated, it may progress and cause serious neurologic complications. In addition to the loss of bladder and/or bowel function, in rare cases, spinal stenosis can cause permanent weakness in one or more muscle groups or sensory loss of a limb in its later stages.

There are non-surgical treatments and surgical procedures for spinal stenosis that can relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerves and restore your comfort and function. Learn more about spinal stenosis diagnosis and treatment.

Get Care

Find Treatment for Spinal Stenosis at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian

Spinal stenosis can range from mild to severe, with serious implications for your health and well-being.

The spine specialists at Och Spine have exceptional experience in recognizing and treating the symptoms of spinal stenosis. They work with you to design a program of care that meets your personal goals and gets you back to doing what you enjoy—without pain.

Give us a call to learn how we can take care of you.