What Is Cervical Spinal Stenosis?

Physical therapist treating patient with neck pain

Cervical spinal stenosis is a medical condition in which the spinal canal becomes narrow in the neck. The spine has a series of 33 stacked vertebrae, seven of which make up the cervical spine (neck). The spinal canal is the open area in the vertebrae that the spinal cord runs through. Nerve roots exit the spinal canal and run to every part of the body, allowing movement, sensation, and bodily functions. If the spinal canal narrows, the nerve roots can become compressed, leading to pain and inflammation.

Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics is New Jersey’s most comprehensive spine center. Here, the CNSO team explains more about cervical spinal stenosis, what causes it, and how it can be treated.

Causes of Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Most often, cervical spinal stenosis develops as the result of age-related changes to the spinal canal. Thus, patients who develop this condition usually are over the age of 50. Cervical spinal stenosis may be caused by:

  • Osteoarthritis: A common form of degenerative joint disease that develops in the spine, osteoarthritis is a breakdown of cartilage that can lead to pain, swelling, and stiffness.
  • Herniated discs: The flexible discs that act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae can dry out, become compressed, or move out of place.
  • Bone spurs of the spine: Also known as osteophytes, these are overgrowths of bone that can develop as a result of osteoarthritis.
  • Spinal injury: Fractures to the spine can narrow the canal space as they heal.

Less often, spinal stenosis develops as the result of cysts or tumors that take up space in the spinal canal. Ultimately, the lack of space in the spinal canal means that nerves are likely to be compressed or irritated.

Risk Factors for Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Certain patients are more at risk of developing spinal stenosis:

  • Age: Older adults are more at risk of cervical spinal stenosis.
  • Sex: Women are more likely to develop spinal stenosis than men.
  • History of spinal trauma: Patients with a previous spinal injury, such as from a car accident or a sports trauma, may have an increased risk of spinal stenosis.
  • Genetics: A family history of spinal stenosis increases the likelihood that a patient will develop the condition themselves.

Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis may be mild at first and can worsen over time. They include:

  • Chronic neck pain or stiffness
  • Muscle weakness in the arms or hands
  • Shoulder pain
  • Pain that radiates down into one arm
  • A tingling or pins-and-needles sensation, known as paresthesia
  • Difficulty walking or maintaining balance

Severe cases of spinal stenosis can even affect bladder or bowel function, leading to incontinence.

Diagnosing and Treating Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Typically, cervical spinal stenosis can be diagnosed with a physical examination and imaging tests. These might include a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or CT myelogram.

Mild cases of spinal stenosis often can be effectively treated with conservative care. This includes:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Rest and activity modification
  • Applying heat or ice packs

Many patients with cervical spinal stenosis can benefit from physical therapy. A certified physical therapist can teach a patient the right exercises and stretches to minimize pain, improve the range of motion and flexibility in the neck, and reduce stiffness. A physical therapist also can instruct a patient in the proper posture and ergonomic exercises to keep symptoms from returning.

Severe cases of cervical spinal stenosis that do not resolve with less invasive treatments may require surgical intervention. Using spinal decompression treatment, such as a laminectomy or discectomy, a neurosurgeon can remove the tissue that is irritating a nerve root. If the patient has severe spinal instability, spinal fusion surgery may be recommended. The neurosurgeon’s recommendations will depend on many factors, including the severity of symptoms, the cause of the compression, and the patient’s overall health.

Find Comprehensive Care for Neck and Back Pain

Patients with cervical spinal stenosis can find advanced care at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO). With multiple locations to serve individuals throughout northern New Jersey, CNSO is the state’s most comprehensive spine care center. Philosophically, CNSO takes a conservative approach to care, starting with pain management and physical therapy and moving to surgery only if necessary.

The comprehensive team at CNSO includes neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management, physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists, all working together to ensure appropriate care. To serve a broader range of patients, CNSO’s medical team speaks several languages in addition to English: Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

Each patient at CNSO benefits from a personalized treatment plan tailored to their needs. For more information about spinal stenosis treatment or to request an appointment, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics