Spinal Canal Related Pain

Navigating the Spinal Canal: Narrowing, Symptoms, & Treatments

The spinal canal, a vital structure in the human body, houses the spinal cord and nerve roots, ensuring proper neural function and protection. However, narrowing of this canal, known as spinal stenosis, can lead to significant clinical issues. This article delves into the anatomy of the spinal canal, the causes and clinical presentation of its narrowing, diagnostic approaches, and cutting-edge interventional treatments.

Anatomy of the Spinal Canal

The spinal canal is a bony channel formed by the vertebral column, extending from the cervical to the lumbar spine. It is divided into three regions:

  1. Cervical Spinal Canal: Encompasses the neck area, protecting the cervical spinal cord and nerve roots.
  2. Thoracic Spinal Canal: Runs through the upper and mid-back, safeguarding the thoracic spinal cord.
  3. Lumbar Spinal Canal: Located in the lower back, housing the lumbar spinal cord and nerve roots before they branch out into the cauda equina.

The canal is surrounded by vertebral bodies, intervertebral discs, ligaments, and facet joints, all contributing to its structural integrity and functional capacity.

Causes of Spinal Canal Narrowing

Spinal canal narrowing, or spinal stenosis, can result from various factors, both degenerative and congenital:

  1. Degenerative Changes: The most common cause, including:
    • Osteoarthritis: Degeneration of facet joints and formation of bone spurs.
    • Disc Herniation: Protrusion or extrusion of intervertebral discs into the canal.
    • Ligamentum Flavum Hypertrophy: Thickening of spinal ligaments.
    • Spinal Bone Mal-alignment: Spondylolisthesis.
  2. Congenital Stenosis: Present at birth, characterized by an abnormally narrow spinal canal.
  3. Traumatic Injury: Fractures or dislocations causing canal encroachment.
  4. Spinal Tumors: Benign or malignant growths that invade or compress the canal.
  5. Inflammatory Conditions: Diseases like ankylosing spondylitis leading to structural changes and stenosis.

Clinical Presentation of Narrowed Spinal Canal

The symptoms of spinal canal narrowing depend on the severity and location of the stenosis:

  1. Cervical Stenosis:
    • Myelopathy: Symptoms include neck pain, numbness, weakness, and coordination problems in the hands and legs.
    • Radiculopathy: Nerve root compression causing pain, tingling, and weakness in the arms.
  2. Thoracic Stenosis:
    • Less common, but can cause upper back pain, radiating pain around the ribcage, and lower extremity weakness.
  3. Lumbar Stenosis:
    • Neurogenic Claudication: Leg pain and weakness, often worsened by walking and relieved by sitting or bending forward.
    • Radiculopathy: Sciatica-like symptoms, including lower back pain radiating to the legs.

Diagnostic Work-Up

Accurate diagnosis involves a combination of clinical evaluation and imaging studies:

  1. Clinical Examination: Detailed patient history and physical examination to assess pain patterns, neurological deficits, and functional limitations.
  2. Imaging Studies:
    • X-Rays: Initial assessment for structural abnormalities.
    • MRI: Gold standard for visualizing soft tissue structures, including discs, ligaments, and spinal cord.
    • CT Scans: Detailed bone imaging, useful for assessing bony stenosis.
    • Myelography: Involves injecting contrast dye into the spinal canal to enhance imaging of nerve roots and spinal cord compression.

Treatment Options

While conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medications, and lifestyle modifications are often first-line, interventional modalities are crucial for persistent or severe cases.

Interventional Treatment Modalities

  1. Epidural Steroid Injections: Administering corticosteroids into the epidural space to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. These injections are particularly effective for radicular pain.
  2. Selective Nerve Root Blocks: Targeted injections of anesthetics and steroids around specific nerve roots to provide pain relief and diagnostic information.
  3. Facet Joint Injections: Injections into the facet joints to reduce inflammation and pain caused by facet joint arthritis.
  4. Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA): A minimally invasive procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to disrupt pain signals from affected nerves, providing longer-term relief.
  5. Minimally Invasive Lumbar Decompression (MILD): A procedure done through a small hole to release ligaments flavor from its anchoring sites and remove portions of it to decompress the spinal canal.
  6. Interspinous Process Devices (IPD): Implantation of spacers between spinous processes to relieve pressure on spinal nerves by expanding the spinal canal. Examples include Vertiflex and Minuteman.
  7. Percutaneous Disc Decompression (PDD): Uses endoscope and a probe to remove a portion of the herniated disc, reducing pressure on nerve roots. Example includes Disc-Fx.
  8. Surgical Interventions: In cases of severe stenosis, surgical options like laminectomy, laminoplasty, or spinal fusion may be necessary to decompress the spinal canal and stabilize the spine.


Spinal canal narrowing can significantly impact a patient’s quality of life, manifesting as pain, weakness, and neurological deficits. Understanding the anatomy, causes, and clinical presentation of spinal stenosis is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective management. While conservative treatments are beneficial for many, interventional modalities offer advanced solutions for those with persistent symptoms. These treatments, ranging from injections to minimally invasive surgeries, can provide significant relief and improve patient outcomes.


  1. Genevay S, Atlas SJ. “Lumbar spinal stenosis.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology. 2010.
  2. Lurie J, Tomkins-Lane C. “Management of lumbar spinal stenosis.” BMJ. 2016.
  3. Katz JN, Harris MB. “Clinical practice. Lumbar spinal stenosis.” New England Journal of Medicine. 2008.
  4. Kreiner DS, Shaffer WO, Baisden JL, et al. “An evidence-based clinical guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis.” Spine Journal. 2013.
  5. North American Spine Society. “Evidence-Based Clinical Guidelines for Multidisciplinary Spine Care: Diagnosis and Treatment of Degenerative Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.” 2011.

These references provide further insights into the anatomy, causes, clinical presentation, and advanced interventional treatments for spinal canal narrowing.

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