Auto accidents, roadwork zones, speed traps, we all know what happens when a major highway gets constricted by a lane or two. If you're on it, you'll certainly get slowed down, or possibly detoured onto side roads that send you in the wrong direction. Best case, you'll be late; worst case, you might not get there at all.

In a similar way, electrical impulses travel through the nervous system, carrying messages between your brain and the rest of your body. And when the main roadway the spinal column gets constricted, those messages don't travel as they should.

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis vs. Cervical Spinal Stenosis

This constriction, known as spinal stenosis, is most often caused by the normal wear and tear of everyday activities that weaken the spine over time. Stenosis produces various symptoms as nerve messages get blocked, slowed down or diverted. When the stenosis is in the lower back (known as lumbar stenosis), the spinal nerve roots are compressed, producing symptoms such as pain, weakness, or numbness in the legs and buttocks, which might get worse with walking. Cervical stenosis, which occurs in the neck, is less common, but more serious because it involves compression of the spinal cord. It can produce similar symptoms in the shoulders, arms and legs. However, it may also produce hand clumsiness, gait and balance problems, and in severe cases, it can interfere with bladder and bowel function.

Lumbar Stenosis

On the highway, the problem that causes the most grief gets the most attention. An accident during rush hour, for example, gets cleared away immediately, but broken pavement that causes accidents might not get addressed all winter. With stenosis, people tend to call the doctor when they have persistent pain, such as the leg pain common with lumbar stenosis. When legs hurt, it's easy to imagine the back being the problem, and to think that an orthopedist or neurosurgeon can help you find and fix it.

Cervical Stenosis

Meanwhile, cervical stenosis can be causing more serious problems that no one thinks to mention to the doctor. When describing the nature and location of her leg pain, will Grandma also think to mention that she tends to wobble when she turns around? Or that she has bumped the frying pan when she meant to grasp the handle? No, she already knows she needs to be more careful, and certainly doesn't need a doctor to tell her something as obvious as that. So the lumbar stenosis that causes pain gets attention, while the cervical stenosis that can lead to serious falls or accidents might not.

Stenosis Treatment

Sure, that three-car pileup at the L-1 intersection needs attention, and soon, just like your leg pain does. But remember that there are lots of other messages traveling along your spinal highway. If messages leave the brain headed one way (I'm going to answer the phone.) and then end up someplace else (Why do I keep bumping into the table?) it might be a good idea to call the physicians at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and see whether some "Road Closed" signs have gotten in the way.