There are a number of potential symptoms of central canal stenosis, and one's specific symptoms are mostly determined by the location and severity of the stenosis in the spine. A burning or sharp pain, numbness, and/or weakness may be experienced in the neck, shoulder, arms, and/or the lower body.
Typically, both sides of the body are affected in central stenosis, although the symptoms and/or signs may not always be symmetrical. Sometimes, one-sided symptoms may also be seen.1,2 The symptoms and signs of central stenosis specific to different locations in the spine are discussed below.
Lumbar Central Canal Stenosis Signs and Symptoms
Stenosis of the lumbar spine occurs almost 4 times more compared to other spinal levels.3 The symptoms usually occur in the lower back, buttocks, thigh, calf, and/or legs.
Some symptoms appear first, followed by advanced symptoms later. In some instances, these symptoms may fluctuate.
Early symptoms of lumbar central canal stenosis
In the initial stages, lumbar central canal stenosis may cause:
- A dull ache to sharp pain in the hips and back of the thighs. Sometimes, the legs and feet may be affected.2,4
- Stiffness and/or a locked feeling in the lower back, usually felt soon after waking in the morning.4,5
These symptoms typically remain constant without progression for a long time and may also improve gradually in some people.2 If the stenosis worsens, more symptoms and signs may develop.
Advanced symptoms and signs of lumbar central canal stenosis
As lumbar central canal stenosis progresses, the condition may include5:
- Burning pain in both legs that typically begins after starting to walk or after standing for prolonged periods of time—pseudo-claudication or neurogenic claudication
- Heaviness, cramping, and numbness in the legs
- ‘Foot-drop’ or difficulty in lifting the foot while walking or attempting to walk
- Reduced bowel and/or bladder control, more often affecting the bladder
Lumbar stenosis pain typically increases while bending the body backward and decreases while bending forward or sitting.5,6 For this reason, patients are often seen leaning over shopping carts or walking with their legs apart in order to relieve pain.2,7 When spinal cord compression in the lumbar spine results in verifiable neurological deficits, such as numbness or weakness, it is called lumbar claudication with radiculopathy.
Cauda equina syndrome
Rarely, the development of cauda equina syndrome is possible as a result of stenosis occurring along with disc herniation in the same level of the lumbar spine. The condition typically causes:
- Loss of bowel and bladder control
- Severe back and leg pain
- Leg weakness
- Saddle anesthesia (numbness in the genital and groin area)
Cauda equina syndrome is considered a medical emergency and must be treated on an urgent basis.8
Cervical Central Canal Stenosis Signs and Symptoms
Research shows that the signs and symptoms of stenosis in the cervical spine varies widely and usually worsens with time. It is possible for the signs and symptoms to disappear for extended periods and then reappear suddenly.9
Early symptoms and signs of cervical central canal stenosis
The initial symptoms and signs of cervical central canal stenosis include9:
- Mild to moderate burning or shock-like pain in the neck, shoulder, and/or arms
- Abnormal sensations such as tingling, crawling, and/or numbness in the hands
- Difficulty in doing tasks that involve fine motor skills of the hand, such as buttoning a shirt
- Difficulty in maintaining balance while walking, especially in the dark
Often, headaches and position-induced pain may interfere with sleep.1 With the progression of spinal cord damage, more symptoms may develop in the arms and/or other parts of the body.
Advanced symptoms and signs of cervical central canal stenosis
Progressive symptoms and signs of cervical central canal stenosis include:
- Difficulty with writing, eventually making holding a pen impossible9
- Severe shooting, electric shock-like pain in the arms and upper body, especially when the head is moved9
- Gait imbalance
Worsening of neurological deficits are seen in almost 75% of cases of cervical stenosis. The injury may become irreversible if the spinal cord is severely affected.9 When spinal cord compression in the cervical spine results in verifiable neurological deficits, such as numbness or weakness, it is called cervical myelopathy.
Thoracic Central Canal Stenosis Symptoms
Stenosis of the thoracic spine is rare and accounts for less than 1% of spinal stenosis cases. When it occurs, it usually affects the lower thoracic spine (T10-T12) and may coexist with lumbar stenosis.10,11
Mostly, the symptoms of thoracic stenosis are similar to lumbar stenosis. As the stenosis of the thoracic spine advances, severe symptoms and signs of muscle weakness are seen in the legs, mainly in the thigh and shin regions.10 A higher level of thoracic stenosis can cause one half of the torso to feel different by temperature and sensation compared to the other half.
The treatment of central canal stenosis focusses on the underlying problem, such as bone spurs (osteophytes), herniated discs, or other causes. It is advisable to seek medical attention as soon as possible if central canal stenosis is suspected.