Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Lumbar spinal stenosis is caused by narrowing of the spinal canal or neural foramina producing root ischaemia and neurogenic claudication. Stenosis of the spinal canal is most often caused by a combination of loss of disc space, osteophytes and a hypertrophic ligamentum flavum. Not all patients with narrowing develop symptoms. Lumbar spinal stenosis, therefore, refers to a clinical syndrome of lower extremity pain caused by mechanical compression on the neural elements or their blood supply.[1]

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  • It most often occurs in those aged 60 years or older.[2]
  • Although symptoms may arise from narrowing of the spinal canal, not all patients with narrowing develop symptoms.[1]

Risk factors

See also the separate article on Examination of the Spine.

  • Gradual onset of unilateral or bilateral leg pain (with or without back pain), numbness, and weakness developing after the patient walks a predictable distance. Affected patients may have less difficulty walking uphill rather than downhill.
  • About half of all patients present with back pain, which is usually bilateral and diffuse over the buttocks.
  • Neurogenic intermittent claudication: leg fatigue and/or weakness and leg numbness and/or paraesthesiae.
  • Pain:
    • Bilateral leg pain with burning or cramping. Involves the buttocks and thighs and spreads to the feet.
    • The neural canal and neural foramen are narrowed with the spine in backward extension and opened in forward flexion; neural compression is usually intermittent and provoked by lying prone or extending (arching) the lumbar spine, and when upright, particularly when walking.
    • Cycling does not usually cause significant problems.
    • The pain is usually relieved by sitting, leaning forward, putting the foot on a raised cushion or stool, or lying supine.
  • May cause cauda equina compression:
    • This is caused by any narrowing of the spinal canal that compresses the nerve roots below the level of the spinal cord.
    • It may be due to trauma, disc herniation, spinal stenosis, spinal neoplasms, and inflammatory or infectious conditions.
    • Features of cauda equina compression include low back pain, unilateral or bilateral sciatica, saddle and perineal anaesthesia, bowel and bladder disturbances, and weakness, sensory deficits and reduced or absent reflexes in the legs.
  • Assessment requires a complete motor and sensory neurological examination, which is often normal.
  • Lower limb vascular examination is also necessary to rule out vascular claudication.
  • Lumbar spine X-ray:
    • Initial assessment for a possible alternative diagnosis.
    • Degenerative spine changes: disc space narrowing is a poor predictor of symptoms.
    • May demonstrate underlying abnormality - eg, occult spina bifida, spondylolisthesis.
  • Lumbar spine MRI (the preferred investigation) or CT scan:
    • MRI is the first choice because myelography is invasive.[3] 
    • CT scan alone is not as helpful but it is an alternative if MRI or CT myelogram is not available.

Non-surgical management consists of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), physiotherapy and epidural steroid injections. However, moderate and high-quality evidence for non-operative treatment is currently lacking.[4] 

If non-surgical management is unsuccessful and neurological decline persists or progresses then surgical treatment (most often laminectomy) is indicated.[5] 

  • Weight reduction if overweight.
  • Physiotherapy with forward flexion exercises.
  • NSAIDs; other medication for pain relief as appropriate.
  • Epidural anaesthetic blocks may be helpful for a minority of patients. Epidural corticosteroids have an additional benefit.[6][7] However, one recent study found no benefit with epidural steroid injections.[8]
  • Surgical decompression: decompressive laminectomy may be effective for those patients who do not respond to conservative measures.[9]
  • There is only limited evidence for the benefits of surgical intervention for degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis.[9]
  • Evidence suggests that active rehabilitation following surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis is effective in improving both short-term and long-term (back-related) functional status.[10]
  • Interspinous distraction procedures:
    • Involve the insertion of a device that is implanted between the spinous processes that reduces backward movement at the symptomatic level (most commonly L3-L5) but allows forward movement and unrestricted axial rotation and lateral bending.
    • The guidance from NICE is that these procedures are effective for carefully selected patients in the short and medium term, although failure may occur and further surgery may be needed.[11] 
  • Cauda equina compression usually requires urgent surgical decompression.
  • Doctors and patients can use Decision Aids together to help choose the best course of action to take.
  • Compare the options  

The prognosis of conservative treatment is relatively good. One study found about half of patients did not have any restriction of usual activities of daily living on long-term follow-up.[12] 

Further reading & references

  1. Truumees E; Spinal stenosis: pathophysiology, clinical and radiologic classification. Instr Course Lect. 2005;54:287-302.
  2. Snyder DL, Doggett D, Turkelson C; Treatment of degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Aug 1;70(3):517-20.
  3. de Schepper EI, Overdevest GM, Suri P, et al; Diagnosis of lumbar spinal stenosis: an updated systematic review of the accuracy of diagnostic tests. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Apr 15;38(8):E469-81. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e31828935ac.
  4. Ammendolia C, Stuber KJ, Rok E, et al; Nonoperative treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis with neurogenic claudication. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Aug 30;8:CD010712. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010712.
  5. Issack PS, Cunningham ME, Pumberger M, et al; Degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis: evaluation and management. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2012 Aug;20(8):527-35. doi: 10.5435/JAAOS-20-08-527.
  6. Koc Z, Ozcakir S, Sivrioglu K, et al; Effectiveness of physical therapy and epidural steroid injections in lumbar spinal stenosis. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 May 1;34(10):985-9. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e31819c0a6b.
  7. Botwin KP, Gruber RD; Lumbar epidural steroid injections in the patient with lumbar spinal stenosis. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2003 Feb;14(1):121-41.
  8. Radcliff K, Kepler C, Hilibrand A, et al; Epidural steroid injections are associated with less improvement in patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: a subgroup analysis of the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Feb 15;38(4):279-91. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e31827ec51f.
  9. Gelalis ID, Stafilas KS, Korompilias AV, et al; Decompressive surgery for degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis: long-term results. Int Orthop. 2006 Feb;30(1):59-63. Epub 2005 Nov 25.
  10. McGregor AH, Probyn K, Cro S, et al; Rehabilitation following surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Dec 9;12:CD009644. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009644.pub2.
  11. Interspinous distraction procedures for lumbar spinal stenosis causing neurogenic claudication, NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline (November 2010)
  12. Miyamoto H, Sumi M, Uno K, et al; Clinical outcome of nonoperative treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis, and predictive factors relating to prognosis, in a 5-year minimum follow-up. J Spinal Disord Tech. 2008 Dec;21(8):563-8. doi: 10.1097/BSD.0b013e31815d896c.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
2403 (v23)
Last Checked:
Next Review:

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