Your spinal cord is the thick bundle of nerves that runs from your brain down the inside of your spine. The spinal cord is like an electric cable that carries signals back and forth between your brain and body.
The spinal cord is very delicate. It's protected inside a tunnel in your spinal bones (vertebrae). The tunnel is called the spinal canal.
Spinal nerves are medium-sized nerves that connect your spinal cord to smaller nerves that travel to different parts of your body.
How the Spine Is Organized
Compression means to press or crush something.
So spinal cord compression means something is pressing on your spinal cord:
The part that's compressed doesn't work right
If the compression continues long enough, it permanently damages your spinal cord
Only the nerve signals below the compressed area are affected
Symptoms may include back pain, numbness, muscle weakness, or trouble controlling your urine or bowel movements
Sometimes, symptoms affect only one side of your body
Doctors do an MRI or other imaging tests
Corticosteroid medicine sometimes lessens swelling that comes from compression
You may also need surgery or radiation therapy to relieve the compression
The most common causes of spinal cord compression include:
The discs in your spine are round, flat pads of soft material. They act like shock absorbers between each of your spine bones. Sometimes a disc splits open and the soft material inside bulges out (herniates). The material can compress your spinal cord or one of your spinal nerves.
Less common causes include:
The main symptoms include:
The parts of your body that are affected depend on which part of your spinal cord is compressed. For example:
Compression at any level can keep you from controlling your urine and bowel movements.
If your cord is compressed only on one side, then only one side of your body is affected.
The severity of your symptoms depend on the severity of the compression.
Mild spinal cord compression may cause only:
Severe compression may cause:
If you have cancer and have new back pain or nerve symptoms, that's considered a medical emergency. Doctors need to make sure your spinal cord isn't being compressed by the cancer.
Spinal cord compression is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to avoid permanent damage.
Treatment depends on the cause and can include:
But even early treatment doesn't guarantee all your symptoms will go away.