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topic is about spinal stenosis of the lower back, also known as the lumbar
area. If you need information on spinal stenosis of the neck, see the topic
Cervical Spinal Stenosis.
stenosis is a
narrowing of the
spinal canal in the lower back, known as the lumbar area.
This usually happens when bone or tissue—or both—grow in the openings in
the spinal bones. This growth can squeeze and irritate nerves that
branch out from the
The result can be pain, numbness, or weakness, most often in the legs, feet, and buttocks.
It's most often caused by changes that can happen as people age. For example:
Symptoms may include:
Symptoms may be severe at times and not as bad at other
times. Most people aren't severely disabled. In fact, many people don't have symptoms at all.
Your doctor can tell if you have it by asking questions about your symptoms and past health and by
doing a physical exam.
You will probably need imaging tests such as an
CT scan, and sometimes
You can most likely control mild to moderate
symptoms with pain medicines, exercise, and physical therapy. Your doctor may
also give you a spinal shot of corticosteroid, a medicine that reduces
You may need surgery if your symptoms get worse or
if they limit what you can do. Surgery to remove bone and
tissue that are squeezing the nerve roots can help relieve leg pain and allow
you to get back to normal activity. But it may not help back pain as much.
Learning about lumbar spinal stenosis:
Living with lumbar spinal stenosis:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
The most common cause of lumbar
spinal stenosis is changes in the spine that can happen as you get older.
These changes include thickening of soft tissues, development of bony spurs, and gradual breakdown of
joints. Any of
these conditions can narrow the spinal canal.
Spinal stenosis usually happens gradually. Symptoms may start when the changes begin to squeeze
the spinal cord or its nerve roots.
These age-related changes often happen when you have certain disorders:
Also, other conditions may cause spinal stenosis, such as:
Many people, especially those older than age 50, have some
narrowing of the spinal canal but don't have
Symptoms occur when the nerve roots get squeezed.
most common symptom is leg pain that happens when you
walk or stand and feels better when you sit. You feel pain in your legs, because the
nerve roots that pass through the lower spine extend to the legs.
People often have leg pain when
the spine is extended—when they are standing straight or leaning backward, for example.
And they often feel better when the spine is flexed—when they are sitting, walking
uphill, riding a bicycle, or leaning over a grocery cart, for example.
People with severe stenosis
may have a habit of leaning forward in a stooped position to relieve
Other symptoms may
other conditions have symptoms similar to spinal stenosis.
Lumbar spinal stenosis
usually starts gradually and gets worse over a long period of time. Narrowing of
the spinal canal can squeeze and irritate the
nerve roots that branch out from the spinal cord. This is what causes pain and other symptoms.
Stenosis occurs most often in the lower back (lumbar) area. When it occurs
in the neck, it is called cervical spinal stenosis.
of spinal stenosis varies—it may stay the same, get better, or get worse.
Severe disability isn't common. But when symptoms are very bad, they can keep you from doing your normal daily
activities. They can have a big effect your quality of life. If symptoms are still severe after
you have tried other treatment for a while, surgery may be considered.
may be too risky for some older adults who have other serious health
The risk of having lumbar
spinal stenosis increases if you:
or other emergency services immediately if a person has signs of damage to the spine after an injury (such as a car accident, fall, or direct blow to the spine). Signs may include severe back pain, or weakness, tingling, or numbness in one or both legs.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
spinal stenosis usually gets worse gradually over months
to years. If you have symptoms that come on suddenly, you may have another
serious condition and should call your doctor.
you begin to regularly have leg pain when walking and standing, call your
The following health professionals can diagnose and
treat spinal stenosis:
Specialists who can treat spinal stenosis include the
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
spinal stenosis can usually be diagnosed based on your
history of symptoms, a
physical exam, and imaging tests—tests that produce various kinds of pictures of your body. These tests include:
Your doctor may try nonsurgical treatment,
such as pain-relieving medicines, exercise, and physical therapy, for a period
of time before ordering imaging tests. If treatment works, you may
not need tests.
Imaging tests can help confirm a diagnosis or rule out other problems. But even if imaging shows spinal stenosis, your symptoms may not match the results of the tests. So treatment is based on what your symptoms are and how much spinal stenosis is impacting your life, not just on the results of imaging tests.
of treatment for spinal stenosis are to relieve pain, numbness, and
weakness in the legs, to make it easier for you to
move around, and to improve your quality of life.
You can't always prevent changes in your back that may come with aging. But you may be able to limit spinal stenosis symptoms by keeping your back as healthy as possible:
You can take steps to treat lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms at home:
Be sure to talk with your doctor before
you start home treatment.
Pain and numbness in your legs can increase your risk of losing your balance. Falling can make symptoms worse. Take steps to lower your risk of
medicine along with other nonsurgical treatment is often enough to
relieve pain and allow you to do normal daily activities. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Medicines used to relieve the symptoms of spinal stenosis
Surgery is done to relieve pressure on the nerve roots. This can help reduce pain, numbness,
and weakness in your legs.
Surgery may be recommended if:
The goal of surgery is to relieve
pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs—not to relieve back pain. People who
have surgery only for back pain are less satisfied with the results than are
those who have surgery for nerve root symptoms and pain in both the back and
legs. Also, numbness, weakness, and pain may return after
Decompressive laminectomy, which relieves pressure on
the spinal nerve roots, is the most common procedure for relieving spinal stenosis. This surgery may be done with or without spinal fusion.
Physical therapy is
an important treatment for
spinal stenosis. It can help with pain and build muscle strength.
physical therapist may teach you exercises to
strengthen your abdominal (belly) muscles, which will help support your spine. You may
also learn exercises to help maintain flexibility and reduce
Alternative and complementary medicine therapies, such as acupuncture, are used by some
people to relieve pain from spinal stenosis.
Small metal devices can be inserted between the bones of the spine, near where the nerve roots leave the spinal cord. These are called interspinous process devices. The idea is to create more space between the bones, to take pressure off the nerve roots. This procedure may be an option for some people.
Other Works Consulted
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and American Academy of Pediatrics. (2010). Lumbar spinal stenosis. In JF Sarwark, ed., Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, 4th ed., pp. 957–960. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Orthopaedic
Atlas SJ, et al. (2005). Long-term outcomes of
surgical and nonsurgical management of sciatica secondary to a lumbar disc
herniation: 10-year results from the Maine Lumbar Spine Study. Spine, 30(8): 927–935.
Chou R, et al. (2009). Interventional therapies, surgery and interdisciplinary rehabilitation for low back pain: An evidence-based clinical practice guideline from the American Pain Society. Spine, 34(10): 1066–1077.
Djurasovic M, et al. (2010). Contemporary management of symptomatic lumbar spinal stenosis. Orthopedic Clinics of North America, 41(2): 183–191.
Hu SS, et al. (2006). Stenosis of the lumbar spine
section of Disorders, diseases, and injuries of the spine. In HB Skinner, ed.,
Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Orthopedics, 4th ed.,
pp. 249–252. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Isaac Z, Wang D (2008). Lumbar spinal stenosis. In WR Frontera et al., eds., Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2nd ed., pp. 259–265. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Mercier LR (2008). Lumbar spine stenosis section of The back. In Practical Orthopedics, 6th ed., pp. 152–153. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.
Resnick D, et al. (2005). Guidelines for the
performance of fusion procedures for degenerative disease of the lumbar
spine—Part 9: Fusion in patients with stenosis and spondylolisthesis.
Journal of Neurosurgery, 2: 679–685.
Resnick DK, et al. (2005). Guidelines for the
performance of fusion procedures for degenerative disease of the lumbar
spine—Part 10: Fusion following decompression in patients with stenosis without
spondylolisthesis. Journal of Neurosurgery, 2(6):
Weinstein JN, et al. (2007). Surgical versus
nonsurgical treatment for lumbar degenerative spondylolisthesis.
New England Journal of Medicine, 356(22):
Current as of:
June 4, 2014
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
& Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics
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