Central Canal Stenosis?

Depiction of disc herniation causing central canal stenosis
Depiction of disc herniation causing central canal stenosis. cliparea

Central canal stenosis occurs when the passageway (called the spinal canal) that runs the length of the spinal column - and houses the the highly sensitive spinal cord - narrows.  Most of the time, central canal stenosis is an age and/or arthritis related condition.  This condition is progressive in nature.  

The Spinal Canal

Simply stated, the spinal canal is a hole down the center of your vertebral column.

 Your spinal cord is located inside this hole.  The spinal cord is a very key part of the central nervous system, which is comprised only of the "cord", as it is often called for short, and the brain.  Note:  You also have a peripheral nervous system that is comprised of the nerves that branch off from the cord, exit the spine from an area on the side of the spinal column known as the intervertebral foramen, and subsequently proceed to all areas of your body.  Essentially, the job of the peripheral nerves is to detect and relay sensations (temperature, pain, joint and body position and more), as well as to communicate impulses to move from your central nervous to your muscles.  

Along with the "cord", the spinal canal houses, blood vessels, fat and your spinal nerve roots.

Related:  Spinal Canal

Dr. John Toerge, osteopath, professor of medicine at Georgetown University and  Medical Director of the Musculoskeletal Institute at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C.

distinguishes the spinal canal from the spinal cord by saying: "The canal is made of bone and supports the body, and it supports the motion of the spine. The spinal cord, on the other hand, provides the means of transmitting the impulses from the brain and other areas of the nervous system to the rest of the body.

The spine is the structural element and the spinal cord is the electrical and conductive portion of the system."

Toerge further clarifies the functions of each structure by saying that the two generally work independently of one another, except, he asserts, when the canal becomes narrowed.  This narrowing may impinge on the nervous elements of the cord.  "That is when the diagnosis of spinal stenosis is made," he says.

Narrowing in the spinal canal compresses the spinal cord as well as the spinal nerve roots, says Dr. Judith Glaser, a  physiatrist and acupuncturist practicing in New Hyde Park, New York.

Related:  Spinal Nerve Roots

According to Dr. Sergio Gonzalez-Arias, medical director of Baptist Health Neuroscience Center in Miami, Florida, a compressed cord may cause any number of symptoms including (but not limited to) pain, weakness, numbness, clumsiness, and possibly bowel and/or bladder problems.  A classic symptom is neurogenic claudication, which is a cramping that may be associated with prolonged walking or standing.

What Causes the Spinal Canal to Narrow?

As mentioned above, quite often arthritis of the spine is at the root of central canal stenosis.  Arthritis may develop on the spinal nerve roots and in the canal, Toerge explains.  

But genetics may play a role, as well.  In other words, certain people are simply born with narrow spinal canals.  

"Some individuals have a small canal and a large spinal cord or a large canal and small spinal cord (the latter is the better scenario)," Toerge continues.

Not only that, but a wide variety of differences in these parameters (i.e. the size of your spinal canal relative to the size of your spinal cord) are possible, Toerge continues.  He informs me that these differences greatly determine the issues people face with their central canal stenosis diagnosis. 

Glaser adds tumor to the list of causes, stating that while they are less common they still sometimes underlie the presence of central canal stenosis.  

Discs are another potential cause of spinal canal narrowing, including herniations as well as loss of disc height, Toerge says.  

But not using your muscles (i.e. living a sedentary life)  is the highest risk of all, Toerge concludes.  "If this advances to loss of function, the outcome can have serious consequences."

Learn more:   Central Canal Stenosis Symptoms


Email Interview. Glaser, J. DO, LAC, Restorative Medicine in New Hyde Park, NY January 2014.

Email Interview. Gonzalez-Arias, Sergio M.D., Medical Director, Baptist Health Neuroscience Center, Miami, Florida. January 2014.

Email Interview. Toerge, J. DO, Medical Director Musculoskeletal Institute National Rehabilitation Hospital, Washington, DC.  January 2014.

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