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A Pain in the Neck: What You Should Know About Cervical Spine Stenosis

Cervical stenosis is a degenerative condition that affects the bones and nerves of the neck. It results in narrower spaces throughout your spinal column, putting more pressure on the delicate spinal nerve structures.

Research estimates that anywhere from 5% to 21% of the population has some degree of cervical stenosis, though not everyone who has it is symptomatic. When you do exhibit symptoms, though, they can be debilitating.

What are the symptoms of cervical spine stenosis, and is there any way to find relief from it? Read on for more insight into the symptoms, causes, and treatment of this condition.

What Are the Symptoms of Cervical Pain?

There are seven bones called cervical vertebrae, numbered C1-C7, that support your neck. They stack on top of each other like puzzle pieces to form your spine.

Inside of them, your spinal cord runs down from the base of your brain and connects nerves to the rest of your body.

Cervical spine pain is any pain that originates from the area surrounding these vertebrae. There are countless reasons your neck could hurt, from a serious spinal injury to sleeping sideways on your pillow. Some of the general symptoms of cervical pain include:

  • muscle tightness in the neck, jaw, and shoulders
  • difficulty turning your head side to side
  • pain in the soft tissues of the neck
  • headache
  • soreness or a dull ache
  • sharp pains
Neck pain takes many forms, but cervical pain from spinal stenosis has a few key traits to watch for.

What Are the Symptoms of Cervical Spinal Stenosis?

What sets cervical stenosis symptoms apart from other types of neck pain?

Mainly, it’s the signs that nerves are being pinched or compressed. These include:

  • sharp, shooting pain or a constant dull ache
  • numbness or loss of sensation
  • stiffness
  • weakness
  • difficulty with balance and coordination
  • difficulty controlling your bladder or bowel
Because these symptoms can also be a sign of an acute spinal injury, see your doctor right away if you start to notice them.

What Parts of the Body Are Affected by the Cervical Spine?

Cervical stenosis doesn’t only affect your head and neck.

It can cause problems through your entire vertebral column, including your thoracic spine and lumbar spine. The symptoms can also spread to your limbs and the excretory system.

When your narrowed spine pinches a nerve branch, it often leads to cervical radiculopathy. This is the condition responsible for

  • the shooting pain,
  • numbness,
  • and tingling down your shoulders and arms.

Some patients describe it as feeling like an electric shock.

When the spinal cord itself gets compressed, you can start to see symptoms throughout the rest of your body.

You may notice the numbness, tingling, and weakness spread to your legs. You may also have trouble telling when you need to use the restroom or find yourself unable to control when you go.

What Nerves Are Affected by C5, C6, and C7?

Understanding why the parts of the body we talked about earlier are affected requires a greater understanding of cervical spine anatomy.

The nerve roots and blood vessels that run through the spinal canal in your neck branch out to the body above each of your vertebrae (and also below C7). The nerves located in vertebrae C5, C6, and C7 (the lowest three vertebrae in your neck) form the brachial plexus.

The nerves within the brachial plexus are as follows:

  • Axillary nerve: connects to muscles and skin in the shoulder
  • Musculocutaneous nerve: connects to the upper arm muscles and skin of the forearm
  • Radial nerve: connects to the muscles in the back of your upper arm and forearm, as well as the skin on part of your hand
  • Ulnar nerve: connects to the muscles and skin of your hand, causes the “funny bone” sensation when you bump your elbow
  • Median nerve: connects to the muscles in the front of your forearm and the skin on your palm
Exact innervation can vary from person to person because of our unique anatomy. Even so, you can count on these nerves to supply the general areas listed above.

Causes of Cervical Stenosis

The number one cause of cervical stenosis is aging. Because our spines deteriorate as we get older, you’re much more likely to develop the condition after age 50.

Some people are also born with congenital stenosis, meaning their spinal column is naturally narrowed.

Other causes of stenosis can include:

  • thickened ligaments
  • bone spurs on a vertebral body
  • degradation of facet joints
  • degenerative disc disease or damage to intervertebral discs
  • cervical spine injury
  • bulging or herniated cervical discs
  • cysts or tumors on the vertebrae or spinal cord

No matter the cause, most people won’t notice any symptoms from stenosis right away (if ever). You’ll only start to feel the condition impact your life once there’s significant nerve compression. When that’s the case, it’s time to seek medical attention.

Cervical Stenosis Treatment and Diagnosis

Diagnosing stenosis requires a detailed physical exam. Your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms and medical history. They may also order a cervical spine MRI, CT scan, or X-ray to get a better look at your spinal column.

Once you’ve been diagnosed, your doctor will likely recommend that you try some conservative treatments before advancing to surgery. They’ll often recommend that you see a physical therapist to learn some cervical spinal stenosis exercises and stretches. You might also try taking anti-inflammatory medicine or using heat and cold treatments.

If you’re still experiencing symptoms that interfere with your daily life, you might need to get a referral to a neurosurgeon for cervical spine surgery. Cervical stenosis surgery, also called decompression surgery, involves taking out any discs, bone spurs, or ligaments that press on the nerves. You may also have a spinal fusion at the same time to prevent a loss of stability.

Seeking Treatment for Cervical Spine Stenosis

Cervical stenosis can be painful and debilitating, but you don’t have to live with it forever. If you think you might be suffering from a narrowing of the spinal canal, the best thing you can do is seek medical advice from your doctor and a neurosurgeon.

The Neurosurgeons of New Jersey understand how much of an impact can have on your life. If conservative treatments like exercise and physical therapy aren’t enough to repair your cervical spine, they may be able to give you relief through spinal decompression surgery. Contact us today to schedule your consultation appointment and get started on the road to healing.

About Neurosurgeons of NJ

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