Understanding the Difference Between Cervical and Lumbar Stenosis

Understanding the Difference Between Cervical and Lumbar Stenosis

Your risk of developing cervical and lumbar stenosis increases as you get older. At any age, spinal stenosis causes chronic pain that can become debilitating, but help is available. As a specialist in spine and nerve conditions, Richard B. Kim, MD, offers today’s most advanced treatments, easing your symptoms and helping you return to the activities you enjoy.

In this blog, Dr. Kim explains spinal stenosis and the difference between cervical and lumbar stenosis. If you have any questions or need help with ongoing pain, call our office in Newport Beach or Orange, California, or request an appointment online.

About spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis refers to a condition that occurs when the space inside the spinal canal narrows. The spinal canal is a channel created by an open space in the center of each vertebra. This bony channel has one essential job: It protects nerves as they travel from your brain and through the spinal cord.

Since the spinal canal is made of vertebrae, the space doesn't narrow unless you sustain a traumatic injury that damages the bone. 

So how does spinal stenosis develop? The space narrows when degenerative spinal conditions cause changes in the discs, ligaments, and vertebrae. As a result, tissues intrude into the spinal canal.

The conditions that most cause spinal stenosis include:

Though not as common, a spinal tumor may also cause spinal stenosis.

Difference between cervical and lumbar stenosis

Cervical and lumbar stenosis are the same condition; they’re both spinal stenosis. The difference between them is where the condition occurs in your spine.

Your cervical spine includes the seven vertebrae that make up your neck. When spinal stenosis affects your neck, you have cervical stenosis.

Your lumbar spine consists of five vertebrae in your lower back. As a result, spinal stenosis that develops in your lower back is called lumbar spinal stenosis.

Symptoms of cervical and lumbar stenosis

Whether you have cervical or lumbar spinal stenosis, you experience localized pain and the symptoms caused by pinched nerves.

Spinal pain

You have pain in your neck or lower back at the site of the canal narrowing. The conditions that cause spinal stenosis also affect the structure and stability of your spine and place excessive strain on the muscles and supporting tissues. These changes lead to spine pain and muscle cramps.

Pinched nerves

When the spinal canal narrows, the nerves in the area become compressed. This leads to neurological conditions such as radiculopathy (pinched nerve roots) and myelopathy (pinched spinal cord).

Pinched nerves cause symptoms that travel along the damaged nerve. You experience pain, tingling, burning, or numbness that radiate down your arms or legs, depending on whether you have cervical or lumbar stenosis.

Though compressed nerves often cause bouts of excruciating, electric-shock pain in your arms or legs, everyone has different symptoms. Your pain may range from a mild ache to debilitating pain. If you have lumbar stenosis, the pinched nerves may also lead to muscle cramps when walking or exercising.

Damaged spinal nerves can also affect the muscles in your arms, hands, legs, and feet. If you have cervical stenosis, weak hand muscles make it hard to pick up and hold objects.

When lumbar stenosis weakens muscles, you may notice foot drop, a symptom that occurs when you can't pick up the front of your foot. Instead, the foot drags on the ground when you walk.

In the most severe cases of lumbar stenosis, damaged nerves interfere with bowel and bladder function. This condition, called cauda equina syndrome, is rare, but when it occurs, it's a medical emergency that needs immediate treatment.

If you have pain in your neck or lower back, or pain and tingling that travel down your arms or legs, call Richard B. Kim, MD, or request an appointment online today.

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