When Claire started to feel like her hands were asleep at work, she chalked it up to possible carpal tunnel problems and too much overtime spent at the keyboard. However, when she started experiencing shooting electrical sensations down her back, she decided to pay a visit to her doctor. Her eventual diagnosis was cervical stenosis.
According to the University of Virginia School of Medicine, this condition occurs when a person’s spinal canal is too small for his or her spinal cord and nerve roots. The seven vertebrae between a patient’s head and chest comprise the spine. In cervical stenosis, the spinal canal in the neck area narrows and compresses nerves at the point where they leave the spinal cord. This pressure can eventually wreak havoc, causing one of two types of damage.
Myelopathy is actual damage to the spinal cord. When the cord and nerve roots both incur damage, the condition is known as myeloradiculopathy. Individuals who suffer from rheumatoid or degenerative arthritis have a particular propensity for developing cervical stenosis.
WebMD reports that the affliction is common among individuals over the age of 50 and is often due to a combination of causes. As individuals age, the discs between spinal bones begin to bulge beyond normal limits. Sometimes the aging process destroys the cartilage that covers bones. Some patients are born with relatively short bones making up the sides of their spinal canals or experience an increase in size of a ligament on the underside of the roof of the spinal canal. All of these conditions cause narrowing of the canal.
Patients who suffer from cervical stenosis typically develop symptoms over an extended period of time. The most common signs are stiffness, pain or numbness. The areas likely to be numb include the patient’s neck, hands, arms and legs. Activities involving balance and coordination suffer and can result in tripping or shuffling movements during walking.
The University of Virginia School of Medicine suggests that the electrical sensation associated with this condition typically shoots down the patient’s back whenever his or her head moves. In advanced stages, cervical stenosis can also cause problems with bowel and bladder function.
Although this condition is considered a progressive illness, not every patient who has it experiences symptoms so bothersome that they warrant treatment. Many patients have only a mild degree of stenosis and never opt to see a doctor.
Even when the signs of the condition are severe enough to be checked out, doctors can usually help the patient by prescribing physical therapy along with medication. In cases where surgery is the best answer, patients have a choice of two types. The basic approaches are performing an anterior cervical fusion or a posterior laminectomy. Both of these procedures can be performed by a neurosurgeon using one of several variations.
Since many conditions can cause pain, weakness or numbness in a patient’s limbs, doctors need to rule other problems such as multiple sclerosis and a deficiency of vitamin B12 before making a diagnosis of cervical stenosis. Finding the right diagnosis usually involves imaging tests like CR or MRI scans.