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Spinal Cord Compression

What is spinal cord compression?

Your spinal cord has nerves that send signals or messages back and forth between your brain and the rest of your body. Spinal cord compression occurs when a mass places pressure on the cord. A mass can include a tumor or bone fragment. Compression can develop anywhere along the spinal cord from the neck to the lower spine.

What are the symptoms of spinal cord compression?

The symptoms of spinal cord compression can vary. They depend on how severe the compression is and on what area of the spinal cord is compressed.

One of the most common symptoms is stiffness or pain in the back or the neck. Numbness or weakness in the legs, hands, and arms can also develop. A condition known as cauda equina syndrome can develop if the compression is in the lumbar area. The symptoms of this syndrome include:

  • severe pain and weakness in the legs
  • a loss of bowel and bladder control
  • severe numbness in the back of the legs and inner thighs

Spinal cord compression affects fine motor skills and coordination.

What causes spinal cord compression?

Spinal cord compression has many possible causes. The compression can come on suddenly in some cases. Compression can occur over time in other instances. The causes of spinal cord compression include the following:

  • Certain degenerative diseases, such as arthritis, can lead to spinal cord compression.
  • A ruptured disk may lead to spinal cord compression.
  • Injury to the spinal cord or the area around the cord can lead to swelling, which can cause compression.
  • Bleeding disorders coupled with chiropractic manipulation can result in large clots compressing the spinal cord.
  • Bone spurs can narrow the spinal canal, causing compression of the spinal cord.
  • Cancerous and noncancerous tumors can grow in the space near the spinal cord. The tumor can put pressure on the cord if this occurs, causing compression.

Who is at risk for spinal cord compression?

Anyone can have an injury or develop a condition that leads to spinal cord compression. A few factors may increase your risk. Use of poor lifting techniques may increase your risk of a neck or back injury, which can cause spinal cord compression. People who have osteoarthritis may also be at an increased risk for developing spinal cord compression.

How is spinal cord compression diagnosed?

Doctors can diagnose spinal cord compression by performing a medical history and an exam, along with an X-ray of the spine and a CT scan or MRI test. Both a CT and MRI can provide a detailed image of your spine.

The doctor may order a myelogram in some cases. This involves injecting dye into your spinal area and then taking a CT scan of that area.

How is spinal cord compression treated?

Treatment for a spinal compression depends on the causes and the severity of the compression. Your doctor may recommend reduced physical activity or immobilization. Treatment plans can include the following:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications may help decrease swelling and reduce pain.
  • Epidural steroid injections into the spinal area may help treat the symptoms of spinal cord compression.
  • Some people with spinal cord compression may benefit from physical therapy. Exercises can help strengthen the abdominal and leg muscles, and this strengthening may help decrease symptoms.
  • Home care, such as applying ice packs and heating pads, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers, can help relieve pain.
  • Alternative treatments can include acupuncture or acupressure. Chiropractic manipulation shouldn’t be used for spinal cord compression according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
  • Your doctor may prescribe other treatments, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, to shrink a tumor that’s causing cord compression.

Surgery may be an option if more conservative treatments don’t work. The appropriate type of surgery depends on the cause of the compression. Surgeons can fuse vertebrae together, remove bone spurs, or increase the space between the vertebrae.

What is the outlook for people with spinal cord compression?

The cause of the compression along with the severity of symptoms affects your outlook. Some people respond well to treatment while others may not.

How is spinal cord compression prevented?

It may not be possible to prevent spinal cord compression in all cases because there are so many possible causes. Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise can help reduce added pressure on the back and symptoms of a cord compression. Learning how to lift properly may decrease your likelihood of injury. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed on: Aug 01, 2016: William Morrison, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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