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Cervical Stenosis

Stenosis in the neck, also called the cervical spine, affects the upper part of the body including the arms and hands. Stenosis is the narrowing of the bony canal that protects the spinal cord and its branching nerves to the point where it injures the spinal cord or nerves.

This may be caused by a number of conditions including bone spurs or rupture of the spinal discs, the spongy pads of tissue that keep the vertebrae from grinding against each other when you bend your back.

Most cases of stenosis in the neck, or cervical stenosis, develop in patients over age 50 because of wear and tear on the spine. Some patients are born with condition and others develop it after a spine injury.

Cervical stenosis most often causes stiffness or pain in the neck, which may increase over time. Other symptoms include:

  • Stiffness, pain or numbness in the shoulder, arm, hand or leg
  • Burning or tingling sensation, or the feeling of pins and needles, in the shoulder, arm or hand or leg
  • Balance and coordinatiion problems when walking
  • In severe cases, bladder and bowel problems

Doctors use two kinds of tests to diagnose spinal stenosis. Some of the tests are aimed at making sure there isn't another cause producing the symptoms. Others can indicate that the vertebral narrowing has occurred. After asking you questions about your symptoms, your doctor probably will check your reflexes, gait and other indicators of spinal problems.

Tests include:

  • X-ray — High-energy radiation is used to take pictures of the spine.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) — An MRI provides detailed pictures of the spine that are produced with a powerful magnet linked to a computer.
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If several months of treatment have not improved the symptoms, and if the stenosis is severe, surgery to widen the spinal canal may be necessary. Because bone continues to deteriorate, additional treatment may be needed several years after even successful surgery. Operations used to treat stenosis include:

  • Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion — A small incision in the front of the neck is used to access the upper spine. The ruptured or herniated disc is removed and replaced with a small bone plug, which eventually grows to connect the two adjacent vertebrae.
  • Cervical Corpectomy — Part of the vertebra and discs are removed and replaced with a bone graft or a metal plate and screws to support the spine.
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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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Spine Center
400 Parnassus Ave., Third Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143-0332
Phone: (866) 81-SPINE or
(866) 817-7463
Neuro-spine Fax: (415) 353-2176
Ortho-spine Fax: (415) 353-4047
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