Understanding Cervical Stenosis
our spinal cord is a cable full of nerves similar in diameter to your little finger. Electrical signals passing through these nerves carry information between the brain and the various body parts. Through this cable, the brain receives sensory information from the body, and sends motor commands to the muscles. The spinal cord travels within a protective canal created by the bones and joints of the spinal column, which is divided into cervical (neck), thoracic (mid back), and lumbar (low back) regions.
Stenosis is a medical term that describes abnormal narrowing of a canal. For example, coronary stenosis is narrowing of a coronary artery in the heart, which can lead to a heart attack. Spinal stenosis is narrowing of the canal through which the spinal cord travels. When this stenosis occurs in the cervical spine (neck), it is called cervical stenosis.
Cervical stenosis usually results from degenerative, arthritic changes to the bones and joints of the spinal column. Therefore it becomes more common with aging. In the general population, only about one in twenty adults have cervical stenosis. However, that incidence is doubled for those over 70.
As we age, our bones and joints naturally succumb to daily wear and tear, in a process known as arthritis. Arthritic joints can become enlarged or deformed, as is typically seen in arthritic knuckles in the hands and fingers. When these arthritic deformities occur in the cervical spine, overgrown joints, ligaments, or bone spurs can crowd into the spaces reserved for the spinal cord and nerves, resulting in cervical stenosis, and pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
If this pressure becomes sufficiently advanced, electrical signals in the spinal cord can be interrupted, and the ability of your brain to communicate with your body becomes impaired. This can result in numbness in the hands and fingers, loss of dexterity, weakness, or poor balance. Pressure on the nerves can also result in pain into the arms and hands.
In general, cervical stenosis symptoms tend to be mild, and do not require aggressive intervention. Physical therapy for core and neck strengthening, postural training, and skeletal stabilization slows or reverses the progression of arthritic damage. Most people with stenosis can learn to manage their symptoms and prevent recurrences.
However, in some instances, arthritic cervical stenosis is advanced, causing severe pain, weakness, or functional loss. In other instances, stenosis may be caused by tumors or fractures. When these occur, whatever the cause, surgery may be warranted, and entails enlarging the narrowed spinal, giving the spinal cord and nerves more space to travel freely.