Spinal Cord Compression: Symptoms, Treatment, and Urgency

A man holding his back because of back pain

The vertebral bones and discs that make up the spinal column protect the nerves and spinal cord. But injuries or degenerative conditions can cause compression of the spinal cord, causing pain, weakness, and loss of function of the arms, legs, bladder, and bowel movements. Learn more about spinal cord compression and how it is treated from Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics, providing compassionate care throughout northern New Jersey.

What Is Spinal Cord Compression?

Spinal cord compression is a medical condition in which changes to the discs and joints lead to pressure being placed on the spinal cord causing impair neurologic function. During physical examination, the neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine surgeon would detect myelopathy which is indicative of a spinal cord injury. Compression of the spinal cord can be caused by a traumatic injury, a cyst, arthritis, spondylolisthesis, or a tumor. A common cause of spinal cord injury, however, is simply osteoarthritis, the gradual wear and tear on the spine that happens as part of the natural aging process. Patients who develop spinal cord compression because of osteoarthritis usually are over the age of 50.

Signs of Spinal Cord Compression

Signs of spinal cord compression may not be obvious to the layperson at first but can become worse over time. Symptoms of myelopathy can be:

  • Chronic neck pain or stiffness
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the arms, hands, legs or feet
  • Difficulty with coordination and balance
  • Loss of fine motor skills
  • Reduced range of motion in the spine
  • Leg stiffness
  • Paralysis
  • Quadriplegia
  • Loss of bowel control
  • Loss of bladder function

If left untreated, spinal cord compression can result in permanent paralysis, quadriplegia, and loss of bladder or bowel control.

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Compression

Thorough testing is required to diagnose spinal cord compression, as some of the symptoms are caused by other neurologic conditions. A doctor will review a patient’s medical history and current symptoms. They also will complete a physical and neurological examination to test the patient’s reflexes, balance, and coordination.

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan allows the neurosurgeon to visualize the spinal cord, nerves, and intervertebral discs. The neurosurgeon can check for narrowing of the spinal canal and pressure points on the spinal cord and nerves, plus detect any injuries, or tumors using the MRI technology. In some cases, a computed tomography (CT) scan also may be helpful, as it can generate images to further detect bone spurs that may be pressing against the spinal cord or nerves.

Spinal Cord Compression Treatment Options

Typically, a doctor will recommend conservative treatment options before resorting to surgery to treat spinal cord compression. Non-surgical treatments may include:

  • Oral medication to reduce inflammation
  • Wearing a brace to hold the correct position
  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles around the spine

A patient who continues to experience pain, weakness, and loss of motor control most likely will require surgery by a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic spine surgeon. Several forms of surgical decompression treatment can alleviate the cause of spinal cord compression and its associated symptoms:


If spinal vertebrae are pressing against the spinal cord, a laminectomy may be recommended. In this procedure, a surgeon removes a small portion of the lamina, the bony arch of a spinal vertebra. This increases space within the spinal canal and relieves pressure on the spinal cord.

A laminectomy is performed under general anesthesia. Patients can generally return home the same day or within a couple of days and will need to avoid strenuous activity while the spine heals. Often, patients benefit from physical therapy after a laminectomy to maintain their flexibility and range of motion.


If a slipped or herniated disc places mild pressure on a patient’s spinal cord, the neurosurgeon or spine surgeon first recommends an epidural steroid injection to reduce the swelling of the disc and spinal cord. The epidural can be done without general anesthesia. But if the disc herniation is too severe, the neurosurgeon will suggest a procedure called a discectomy. This surgery also is performed under general anesthesia. The spine surgeon may remove a portion of the disc or the entire disc, replace it with an artificial disc, which is called arthroplasty, or perform a spinal fusion.


This surgical procedure widens the opening where the nerve roots exit the spinal canal. Normal wear and tear to the spine can cause bone tissue to overgrow, compressing the spinal cord. But also, a motor vehicle accident, work injury, or sports injury can cause foraminal narrowing. By removing a small portion of bone, a spine surgeon can relieve the pressure on the nerve roots. A foraminotomy sometimes is performed in conjunction with a laminectomy.

Receive Quality Care From CNSO

Patients with spinal cord compression and other spine conditions can find award-winning care at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics. As New Jersey’s most comprehensive spine care center, CNSO creates personalized treatment plans to help each patient achieve the best possible health outcomes. With board-certified neurosurgeons, orthopedists, pain management specialists, and certified physical therapists in one location, CNSO’s medical team offers coordinated and specialized care. CNSO has locations throughout northern New Jersey. To learn more, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics