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What is cervical spinal stenosis?

Cervical spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck and usually occurs in people over 50 years of age. The narrowing can occur at the center of your spine in the canals that branch off your spine. It also can occur between the bones of your spine (vertebrae). As the canals narrow, they put pressure on your nerves and spinal cord and can cause pain. When the spinal canal narrows on the lower part of your spine, it is known as lumbar spinal stenosis. Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis develop gradually and worsen over time.


The leading cause of cervical spinal stenosis is the aging process. The wear and tear on the spine over a period of 50 years or more can cause the cushions (discs) between your vertebrae to flatten and bulge. Eventually, the degenerated discs may develop tiny tears in their tough, fibrous outer covering. The tears cause the jelly-like substance in the disc's center to protrude and press on your spinal cord and nerve roots. Also, the tendons (tough rope-like cords) that hold the spine together can thicken and stiffen over time, narrowing the spinal canal. Together, the degenerative changes of the thickening spinal tendons and the bulging discs can cause cervical spinal stenosis.

Other causes of cervical spinal stenosis are:

  • Spinal injuries during youth, such as car accidents and other trauma to the spine
  • Genetic disorders such as:
    • Narrow spinal canal
    • Scoliosis (curvature of the spine)
    • Paget's disease of the bone – causes bones to be deformed or abnormally large. If it happens in the spine, it can cause cervical spinal stenosis.
    • Achondroplasia – the most frequent form of short-limb dwarfism, it slows the rate of bone growth. If it occurs in the spine, babies can be born with cervical spinal stenosis.
  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of bones)
  • Arthritis in the spine


In the early stages, you may not experience any symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis even though the condition can be seen on an X-ray. As pressure increases on the spinal cord, you may experience:

  • Stiffness, pain or numbness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands or legs
  • Balance and coordination problems (shuffling or tripping while walking) due to  weakness and spasticity in your legs
  • Loss of your "position sense," the sensation that allows you to know where your arms and legs are when your eyes are closed
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control (incontinence)


Nonsurgical treatments for cervical spinal stenosis include pain medications, physical therapy and steroid injections. More severe cases may require cervical laminectomy or cervical fusion surgery.

The multidisciplinary team of spine experts at Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute treat cervical spinal stenosis as well as a broad range of spine conditions that can occur at any stage of life.

People experience back pain differently. We can help with a variety of surgical or nonsurgical treatments to get you back on your feet again.

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