(See also Evaluation of Neck and Back Pain Evaluation of Neck and Back Pain Neck pain and back pain are among the most common reasons for physician visits. This discussion covers neck pain involving the posterior neck (not pain limited to the anterior neck) and low... read more .)
Spinal stenosis can be congenital or acquired. It may involve the cervical or lumbar spine. Acquired lumbar spinal stenosis (LSS) is a common cause of sciatica Sciatica Sciatica is pain along the sciatic nerve. It usually results from compression of lumbar nerve roots in the lower back. Common causes include intervertebral disk herniation, osteophytes, and... read more in middle-aged or older patients. The most common causes of LSS are osteoarthritis Osteoarthritis (OA) Osteoarthritis is a chronic arthropathy characterized by disruption and potential loss of joint cartilage along with other joint changes, including bone hypertrophy (osteophyte formation). Symptoms... read more , degenerative disk disorders, spondylosis Cervical Spondylosis and Spondylotic Cervical Myelopathy Cervical spondylosis is osteoarthritis of the cervical spine causing stenosis of the canal and sometimes cervical myelopathy due to encroachment of bony osteoarthritic growths (osteophytes)... read more , and spondylolisthesis Spondylolisthesis Spondylolisthesis is slippage of a lumbar vertebra in relation to the vertebra below it. Anterior slippage (anterolisthesis) is more common than posterior slippage (retrolisthesis). Spondylolisthesis... read more with compression of the cauda equina. Other causes include Paget disease of bone Paget Disease of Bone Paget disease of bone is a chronic disorder of the adult skeleton in which bone turnover is accelerated in localized areas. Normal matrix is replaced with softened and enlarged bone. The disease... read more and ankylosing spondylitis Ankylosing Spondylitis Ankylosing spondylitis is the prototypical spondyloarthropathy and a systemic disorder characterized by inflammation of the axial skeleton, large peripheral joints, and digits; nocturnal back... read more .
Symptoms and Signs of Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
In patients with lumbar spinal stenosis, pain occurs in the buttocks, thighs, or calves during walking, running, climbing stairs, or even standing. This pain is referred to as neurogenic claudication. The pain is not relieved by standing still but by flexing the back or by sitting (although paresthesias may continue). Walking up hills is less painful than walking down because the back is slightly flexed. Patients may have pain, paresthesias, weakness, and diminished reflexes in the affected nerve root distribution.
Rarely, sudden nerve rootlet compression resulting from LSS or a large disk herniation may cause cauda equina syndrome Symptoms and Signs with distal leg paresis and sensory loss in and around the perineum and anus (saddle anesthesia), as well as bladder, bowel, and pudendal dysfunction; unlike in spinal cord injury, muscle tone and deep tendon reflexes are decreased in the legs.
Diagnosis of Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
Sometimes MRI, electrodiagnostic studies, or both
Spinal stenosis is suspected based on characteristic symptoms of pain that is increased by exertion (neurogenic claudication) and relieved with sitting and/or with back flexion. Muscle strength is usually maintained, but focal weakness, sensory loss, and diminished deep tendon reflexes may be present.
Calf symptoms may simulate those of intermittent vascular claudication. Vascular claudication can be differentiated by relief with rest (not position change), skin atrophy, and abnormalities in pulses, capillary refill, and vascular tests.
Diagnostic tests for lumbar spinal stenosis, when needed, are the same as for sciatica Diagnosis Sciatica is pain along the sciatic nerve. It usually results from compression of lumbar nerve roots in the lower back. Common causes include intervertebral disk herniation, osteophytes, and... read more , including MRI or CT and electrodiagnostic studies.
Treatment of Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
Activity as tolerated, analgesics, and sometimes drugs that relieve neuropathic pain
Possibly epidural corticosteroid injections
Surgery for severe cases
In patients with lumbar spinal stenosis, conservative treatments and indications for surgery are similar to those for sciatica Sciatica Sciatica is pain along the sciatic nerve. It usually results from compression of lumbar nerve roots in the lower back. Common causes include intervertebral disk herniation, osteophytes, and... read more .
Epidural corticosteroid injections sometimes provide transient relief. In symptomatic patients who are poor candidates for surgical intervention, the combination of epidural injections and flexion-based physical therapy can result in some symptomatic improvement.
For advanced spinal stenosis, surgery involves decompression of nerve root entrapment by vertebral canal and foraminal encroachments, which sometimes requires laminectomy at 2 or 3 levels plus foraminotomies and sometimes fusion surgery.
Spinal stability must be preserved. Spinal fusion may be indicated if there is instability or severe, well-localized arthritic changes in 1 or 2 vertebral interspaces; however, some studies highlight the controversial nature of this approach (1, 2 Treatment references Lumbar spinal stenosis is narrowing of the lumbar spinal canal causing compression of the nerve rootlets and nerve roots in the cauda equina before their exit from the foramina. It causes positional... read more ).
Försth P, Olafsson G, Carlsson T, et al: A randomized, controlled trial of fusion surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis. N Engl J Med 374:1413-1423, 2016. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1513721
Ghogawala Z, Dziura J, Butler WE, et al: Laminectomy plus fusion versus laminectomy alone for lumbar spondylolisthesis. N Engl J Med 374:1424-1434, 2016. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1508788