How does spinal narrowing happen?

Spinal narrowing, which is also known as spinal stenosis, is a degenerative condition of the spine that can often lead to chronic neck pain, chronic back pain and other symptoms related to nerve compression. But how does it happen? What causes the spinal canal to narrow and why is this a problem? If you have been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, these are questions you undoubtedly have, and you deserve to get answers by spine specialists who have the training and experience needed to help.

Explaining spinal stenosis

Many physicians describe the spinal canal like a sheath that protects the spinal cord and a variety of essential nerve groups as they enter and exit the spinal column. As you can probably imagine, this area is a tightly packed, very important region of the body.

The problem, however, is that because of the design of the spinal canal, a relatively small problem can snowball and turn into a larger issue — and nowhere is this more common than in the lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck). When the spinal canal narrows as a result of degenerative changes to the spine, the patient is said to experience spinal narrowing, or spinal stenosis. Here are some common causes:

  • Degenerative disc disease — The deterioration of one or more of the spinal discs in the neck or back may entail disc herniation, where the inner disc material escapes the disc and seeps into the spinal canal, or a disc bulge, where the disc wall extrudes into the canal.
  • Facet disease — The osteoarthritic breakdown of vertebral joints often results in joint inflammation and bone spur formation, which can lead to spinal narrowing.
  • Spondylolisthesis — This condition occurs when a spinal segment becomes misaligned, causing one vertebral body to come to rest on the vertebra below it; spondylolisthesis is discussed in degrees of severity.
  • Other degenerative changes — Ligaments can calcify (harden), muscles can atrophy (weaken) and other changes can lead to spinal narrowing. In rare instances, the presence of a tumor can also cause spinal narrowing.


Effective treatment of spinal narrowing is contingent on identifying the source of the problem and relieving the nerve compression in the spine. While conservative treatments are often attempted first, sometimes surgery is required to sufficiently relieve pain and other symptoms. If you are considering surgical intervention, contact Laser Spine Institute for a review of your recent MRI report or CT scan. Our team can determine if you might be a candidate for one of our minimally invasive decompression, or in severe cases, stabilization procedures, which are a safer and effective alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery.^