Spinal Stenosis Overview: Part 2 from Dr Mark McFarland DO

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

Spinal Stenosis is an Abnormal Narrowing of the Spinal Canal Which Can Cause Severe Neck and Back Pain

In my last blog post I dealt with the anatomy of your spine.  Today I shall provide an overview of spinal stenosis and how this can cause severe back and neck pain for patients suffering from this common condition.

Spinal stenosis is defined as abnormal narrowing in the spinal canal. If only a small amount of spinal narrowing occurs, no pain will result. As the narrowing increases, less and less space is available for the spinal cord and nerves, causing compression or squeezing of the spinal cord and its nerves. This compression leads to back and leg pain and leg weakness. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere in the spinal canal, but it is most common in the cervical and lumbar spine.

The narrowing of the spinal canal is caused by the combination of bulging discs, arthritic spurs, and thickened tissues. Together these issues combine to compress the nerves traveling through the spinal canal.

Spinal stenosis is part of the aging process for many people, but not everyone develops the condition as they get older. Normally, it presents in patients over 50 years of age and becomes more severe with increased age. Certain people are more likely to develop spinal stenosis than others; unfortunately, predicting who will be affected is not possible. People who have a family history of spinal stenosis or other back problems are at an increased risk of developing spinal stenosis. People who subject their backs to greater demands, such as athletes or manual laborers, are at an increased risk to develop spinal stenosis than someone with a more sedentary job.

There is no clear correlation between the symptoms of stenosis and race, occupation, sex, or body type. The degenerative process can be managed by diet, exercise, or lifestyle, but it cannot be prevented.


Symptoms of spinal stenosis depend on location in the body and level of severity. The most common symptom of spinal stenosis is lower back pain when standing or walking. Leg pain and numbness may inhibit walking and the spine may lose the lumbar curve and appear flat.

When stenosis develops in the neck (cervical spine stenosis) there can be compression of the spinal cord and the nerves that travel into the arms and hands. This can cause symptoms of:

  • Worsening balance
  • Falling
  • Dropping objects
  • Difficulty buttoning buttons or picking up small coins
  • Loss of control of the bowel and/or bladder
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

When the stenosis develops in the lower back (lumbar spine stenosis) there is compression of the nerves that travel into the legs and feet. This can cause:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness or cramping in the legs and feet, particularly progressively with walking and finding relief in resting

Mark W. McFarland, DO is a fellowship trained spine specialist and orthopaedic surgeon. His practice is focused primarily on the care and treatment of injuries and disorders of the spine. Dr. McFarland practices at Orthopaedic & Spine Center in Newport News, VA.