What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of spaces in the spine (backbone), which causes pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerves.

The spine care team at Univesity of Utah Health evaluates and treats each patient on an individual basis to increase their quality of life. Our experienced staff of experts encompass a breadth of specialties to provide comprehensive spinal care through surgical and non-surgical treatment options.

Types of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is identified by the areas where narrowing occurs and its associated symptoms. This condition can occur in one or more areas of the spine including your:

  • neck (cervical),
  • upper and mid back (thoracic), and
  • lower back (lumbar).

Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Symptoms of spinal stenosis are unique to each patient, and largely depend on the part of the spine where it occurs. 

Cervical Stenosis (Neck)

Symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • loss of coordination, dexterity (skill in performing tasks), and/or balance;
  • shooting pain down the arm;
  • radiating pain or tingling sensations; and
  • neck movements that cause sharp or sudden pain in the arms.

Thoracic Stenosis (Upper & Mid Back)

Symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • difficulty walking or standing upright;
  • loss of coordination, dexterity, and/or balance;
  • bowel or bladder incontinence, or loss of sexual function; and
  • radiating pain in a belt-like distribution on the torso.

Lumbar Stenosis (Lower Back)

Symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • shooting pain down the legs or buttocks (sciatica);
  • numbness, tingling, or pins and needles sensation in the legs;
  • tiredness or heaviness of the legs when walking; and
  • back pain or leg symptoms that worsen with activity. 

Some symptoms may change or advance over time. In many cases, your symptoms will resolve with rest, over-the-counter medications, or other non-surgical methods. It’s important to discuss your symptoms with your provider to help create the best care plan.

When to See a Doctor

Consider visiting a specialist if your symptoms don’t improve after four to six weeks with rest, over-the-counter pain medications, or physical therapy.

Seek immediate care if you experience:

  • painful or activity-limiting symptoms in the arms or legs such as tingling, numbness, or weakness.
  • difficulty walking.
  • trouble moving your arms or legs.
  • loss of feeling in your arms, legs, or feet.
  • numbness in the pelvic region with difficulty emptying your bladder and severe constipation.

Find a Spinal Stenosis Specialist

Spinal Stenosis Causes

Spinal stenosis can be caused by:

  • age-related deterioration of the bones, joints, or disks;
  • traumatic injury; or
  • mass lesions, such as a tumor or infection.

Common terms used to describe causes of spinal stenosis include:

Risk Factors of Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is most common in patients over the age of 50, but may also occur in younger patients. Other causes such as trauma, previous spine surgery, or manual labor-intensive jobs may also increase your risk.

What to Expect at Your First Appointment

Based on your medical history or referral, you’ll meet with one of our team’s care providers who will be best matched to your needs. These specialists may include:

  • a physical therapist,
  • a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician (physiatrist), or
  • a surgeon.

Front Desk Check-In

You should arrive 15 minutes ahead of your appointment time to complete any necessary paperwork. This helps us dedicate as much time as possible to your visit. Please bring your insurance card and make sure our clinic has access to medical records or medical imaging done outside U of U Health. Our team will verify your insurance coverage with your carrier.

During Your Visit

Each visit allows time for you and your specialist to consult as a team. Your provider will listen to your concerns and gather all the information they need to provide you with excellent care. Your provider will also discuss available medical imaging (such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs) needed to help diagnose and understand your condition. 

We will conduct a physical examination to evaluate your condition, which will include: 

  • testing your sensation, strength, stability, and coordination;
  • pain assessment;
  • checking your spinal alignment; and
  • identifying pain sources.

Your specialist will provide information regarding your diagnosis and answer any questions you have. If surgery is recommended, we will discuss the risks of surgery, expectations for the day of surgery, and any possible treatment alternatives.

Next Steps

At the end of the appointment, you will have a plan of action in place for your treatment and care. Your specialist may also:

  • order additional tests or imaging studies to further evaluate your condition.
  • refer you to another specialist such as a physical therapist, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, pain management specialist, or surgeon.

Spinal Stenosis Treatment

Our spine care clinic offers a variety of treatment options to meet each patient’s needs. Your specialist may recommend:

  • steroid injections to alleviate neck, arm, back, and leg pain caused by spinal stenosis.
  • physical therapy for strength and conditioning.
  • spine surgery for patients who have not responded well to other treatments.

We also offer minimally invasive and open surgery procedures, such as:

Does Spinal Stenosis Go Away?

Surgery can improve and relieve spinal stenosis in the targeted area, but new symptoms may occur if degeneration (state of decline or deterioration) progresses.

Make an Appointment with Our Spine Specialists

We accept referrals from your primary care doctor, physiatrist, or other physician. However, you do not need a referral to be seen by one of our spinal care specialists. Please call 801-587‑2225 for more information or to schedule an appointment.

Hear from Our Patients

For years, Dan Owens suffered excruciating back pain, barely managing to make his way between the bed, a nearby bathroom, and a chair only feet away. After many diagnoses and failed treatments for pain management, he grew discouraged. In August 2018, an MRI revealed he had spinal stenosis (severe narrowing caused by arthritis and degenerative disk disease), which exerts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.

Read Dan's Story

Dan Owens, spinal stenosis patient